By R. L. Keller
(follows Past Imperfect)
A solitary figure wandered slowly down the beach. Not particularly cold, the strong winds had nevertheless driven everyone else indoors on this cloudy, gray, late afternoon. But Lee Crane, wrapped up in a heavy red windbreaker – and his own thoughts – barely felt it.
Lee’s boat, the great submarine Seaview, had docked that morning with Lee as usual in command. But only because he had spent the last 2 weeks disobeying so many orders his CO, XO, and CMO had finally just surrendered and let him do pretty much what he wanted. Lee had been seriously injured at the tail end of a difficult cruise to Indonesia. Five broken ribs, serious concussion, and a bruised kidney had been enough to keep him hospitalized for the three days it took Admiral Nelson to conclude his business at the new research station NIMR had established. Once Seaview was ready to head home Lee had been transferred to Sick Bay, where Dr. Will Jamison wanted him to stay the entire ten-day trip home, resting and mending. That had lasted all of three days, until Lee simply got up, walked out, and returned to his cabin.
He’d actually managed to stay there another two days, much to the surprise of everyone on board who knew how active a man their Skipper was. Still officially on Sick Leave, this didn’t keep him from eventually getting bored and starting to wander all over his boat. Scuttlebutt had a couple enterprising JO’s setting up a pool to see how long it took either the CMO to tender his resignation or the Admiral to fire his Captain out a torpedo tube. In the end neither happened, mainly because Lee, while refusing to stay totally inactive, wisely behaved himself just enough to keep either officer from going ballistic. He showed up regularly for meals, took what meds Jamie gave him without argument (almost), and rested well at night – although he did suspect that at least a couple of times the hot chocolate Chip showed up with each evening about 2100 had been ‘doctored’. But while he’d carefully not picked up anything heavier than a clipboard and pencil, he’d made it evident to everyone on board that he was still, if unofficially, in command of the huge submarine. By the time they’d gotten home no one, not even his Exec, had argued with his bringing Seaview into port.
Lee pulled the hood of the jacket further over his head as he walked into the prevailing winds, strong enough to be whipping the ocean into a frenzy of waves and mist. Part of him knew it wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done, going for a walk instead of resting. But ‘rest’ had a multitude of meanings and to Lee, walking on the beach was as good as a full night’s sleep.
Perhaps guessing their friend was restless, both Chip and the Admiral, at different times that last few hours into port, had invited Lee to dinner. Lee smiled to himself as he acknowledged that neither had been anxious to let him out of their sight for very long after the night he’d left Seaview on his own to settle an old score. But he’d smiled and declined the invitations from both men, saying he was just going to relax at home. To Chip he’d added a comment to the effect that he was sure his XO must have better things to do on a Friday night in port. Chip had grinned and said he could no doubt think of something. But he’d still had a slight look of concern as he’d walked away.
Lee had actually intended just a quiet night at home, but the restlessness that had bothered him so much this last trip returned and refused to let him relax. While he had resolved the earlier issues, the resolution itself had created its own set of troubling thoughts. His friends seemed content to get beyond the problems and get back to business as usual, but Lee could not. This time he’d screwed up big time and the demons wouldn’t leave him alone.
There had been enough minor indiscretions on his part to destroy his sense of well-being for a good long time: leaving the boat without properly checking out, scaring Sharkey half to death and leaving him to face the XO’s wrath. Hell, leaving the boat at all, he admitted. At the time he’d been fighting the aftermath of a serious concussion and had barely been able to walk from one end of the boat to the other unaided. It never bothered him to ignore physical infirmities when Seaview or her crew was in danger. That was just part of the job – it came with the territory. But this time it hadn’t been his boat, or Admiral Nelson, or anything related to work. Oh, there had been a vague inference about the crew, but that’s not what had driven him to ignore everything else and go running off on his own. This had been personal. He’d risked losing the respect of the man he most admired, risked leaving the crew to the whims of a crazy man, to say nothing of the emotional turmoil he’d put everyone through, especially Chip. And for what? Plain and simple, a vendetta!
The wind seemed to increase and grow colder. Either that or Lee was just feeling it more. He knew he had no business being out here in the gathering storm. Hell, I had no business leaving Sick Bay the way I did, or doing anything I’ve done the last 10 days except rest. He gave the sand a frustrated kick, then had to clutch his side at the pain that simple movement caused. Damn, he muttered in disgust. He stopped walking until the pain subsided enough to let him continue on slowly, and snuggled deeper into the windbreaker. Jamie’d have a fit if he caught me out here. He grimaced, but nevertheless continued to walk. The demons weren’t going to let him rest this night.
Poor Jamie, he grinned ruefully. Lee knew he’d been risking all out warfare with the CMO by refusing to stay in Sick Bay on the way home. But what it had really boiled down to was that Lee was ashamed to lay there quietly watching the best Doctor he’d ever known treat him for injuries he himself had been responsible for. That’s when the demons had really set in, not letting him stay in Sick Bay, not letting him rest in his cabin, and following him relentlessly as he wandered around Seaview. And especially while he spoke to crew and checked on his ‘Lady’, they constantly reminded him of what an idiot he’d been for risking all this on a personal bit of revenge.
Lee rarely admitted he had a personal life. As Seaview’s Captain he was on duty 24/7. He had too many responsibilities to permit more than a few days off at a time – if that. He knew this was not something that Admiral Nelson or the Institute required of him. But he required it of himself. He simply did not allow himself the luxury of acting otherwise. His actions, on a strictly personal "mission", had compromised his ability to do his job, and he wasn’t sure how he could justify that – if only to himself.
He knew Admiral Nelson held no resentment toward him for his actions that night. He might not approve of how Lee had handled the situation but his nod that afternoon in the hospital, when Lee had told Detective Sabirin that it was just something he had to do by himself, told him Nelson understood his need to deal with the past on his own terms. Nelson had not mentioned the incident again. While grateful, Lee wasn’t ready to admit to himself that that was enough to let himself off the hook for what he knew he’d put his boss, his mentor, his friend, through until they’d found him.
Suddenly Lee’s ears started ringing loudly and his vision blurred, reminding him abruptly just how far from healed he still was. He needed to sit down – now! There was a fairly high sand dune not far away that offered some protection from the wind. Lee slowly walked over and lowered himself carefully against it. Despite the tape that kept his ribs bound tightly, he pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them, staring out at the waves. They mirrored his thoughts – tormented and restless.
And look what I did to Chip! The two had been friends since their first days at Annapolis. They’d gone in separate directions after graduation but had made the effort to stay in touch through the years. Reunited on Seaview they were closer than ever. And Lee had basically lied to his friend. Implied he was staying in his cabin, and the instant Chip’s back was turned had run off. How could Chip ever forgive him? Hell, how could he forgive himself, putting their friendship, the trust in each other that had sometimes been all that stood between Seaview and her crew’s survival or destruction, in jeopardy. Chip hadn’t been quite so quick to forgive Lee as Nelson seemed to have been. Oh, his rage hadn’t lasted long. By the time Lee had returned to Seaview from the hospital Chip had been back to his old self, teasing and cajoling. Or at least he seemed to be back to normal. Lee couldn’t be sure. As close as they were, Chip had a knack for sometimes hiding his real feelings even from him.
Lee sighed heavily and rested his chin on one knee. How will I know if I’ve irrevocably destroyed that bond? Will Chip say anything? No, Lee decided. If he hadn’t already, Chip would say nothing more on the subject. So, I find out the next time I really need him, and he tells me where to shove it. Another huge sigh escaped, and as Lee hugged himself tighter thought, At least Jamie would be happy I’m breathing deeply. What is it he’s always fussing about? When someone has injured ribs, shallow breathing leads to pneumonia?
Movement far down the beach briefly caught Lee’s attention. Someone apparently as dumb as him was making their way along the beach, head down, pushing against the strengthening winds. But as quickly as the figure was spotted, it was forgotten in Lee’s anguish.
So, can I bring it up to Chip? Lee heaved a huge sigh. Had ten days to do it. Didn’t even make the attempt. How the hell do I do it now? He’d had lots of opportunities. Actually, Chip had even set him up to talk, now that he thought about it. Every night after Lee left Sick Bay, Chip would show up in Lee’s cabin around 2100 with hot chocolate, and once or twice Cookie’s double chocolate brownies. Those two items had always been Chip’s standard cure for whatever happened to be wrong at the moment. Was he waiting for me to say something? Lee snorted derisively at himself. Of course he was, stupid. You were just too dumb to see it. Lee closed his eyes. Damn! All you wanted to talk about was Seaview’s status, crew assignments, and the next cruise – which you’ll probably miss, thanks to your own pig-headed stubbornness. He was giving you every opportunity, and what did you do? Blow him off!
Lee shivered, and wasn’t sure it had anything to do with the lowering temperature. How many times had he stopped crewmen from acting rashly in the face of whatever disaster was happening at the time? How many times had he counseled them that their duty was first to Seaview and the Admiral, and last to themselves? On top of everything else, what cracks have I put in my credibility with them? All I had to do was ask for help, and every last one of them would have followed me to hell if necessary. And now…?
A very miserable Lee dropped his head until his forehead rested on his knees. So lost in his distress was he, the person he’d spotted earlier was nearly on top of him before he noticed. He nearly startled like a frightened rabbit, then realized it was Chip. He covered it quickly with a blustered, "What are you doing here?" Thankfully Chip seemed to ignore both reactions, just giving Lee a small smile and folding his long frame to sit down to Lee’s left. Lee’s voice lost most of its harshness as he continued. "Thought you had plans for this evening."
Chip nodded. "Spending it with a friend," came the soft response. The grin broadened as he brought up his left hand, in which he was holding two bottles of beer Lee hadn’t until then noticed. Chip twisted off both caps and dropped them into his jacket pocket before extending one bottle toward Lee.
Lee hesitated. "What, no cocoa?" he finally managed to get out.
"These were easier to carry."
"Not sure that’s on my list of approved meds."
"What Jamie don’t know won’t get us both killed," Chip’s grin widened even more. "Besides," he added, "checked with Frank. Since we both figured you’d not be too conscientious about taking your pain meds," and his voice hardened just a bit before he continued on in a tone more back to normal, "he didn’t think one beer would hurt." Finally Lee gave him a small answering smile and took the proffered bottle.
The two sat in amiable silence for a bit, but Lee’s mind was still in turmoil. Once again Chip had given him the perfect opening and he didn’t even know how to begin. "I’m sorry," he finally said, so softly he wasn’t even sure if Chip could hear him over the wind and waves.
"For what?" Chip’s voice held genuine puzzlement, as did his expression when he turned to Lee.
Lee gave his friend a look of incredulity before saying simply, "I wasn’t honest with to you."
"So?" and Chip took a long drag from the beer bottle. "I sure as hell wouldn’t have let you go if you’d told me your hair-brained plan."
Lee just stared at the look of gentle humor Chip was giving him. Finally he got up the courage to ask, "You’re not angry?"
"At the time," Chip replied, "ticked as hell." Just for a moment his voice was hard. "Not knowing what was going on, where you were, nearly killed me." But both voice and expression softened again before he continued. "Once I knew what had happened, I understood."
"You did?" Lee breathed softly.
"Sure. Mr. Invincible rides again." It came out lightly, but there was a brief bit of steel in the blue eyes before Chip smiled again. "I know you felt you had to deal with Hardjono yourself. You were wrong, but that’s no nevermind now," and he gave Lee a quick smile. "Hell, under the circumstances I might have done the same thing." Chip shrugged and took another long pull from the bottle. "Then you’d have come totally unhinged, threatened to drag my tail behind the boat all the way home, and that would have been the end of it."
Lee just shook his head and went back to staring out at the angry ocean. But with that revelation came the courage a few minutes later to ask, "What’s the crew saying?"
"My running off like that." Lee sighed heavily. "I know they’d never say or do anything in front of me. But how many are grumbling because I did what I’m all the time telling them they can’t?"
Chip laughed out loud. "Are you kidding? You’ve given them a whole new tale to impress their buddies with down at BZ’s. Inside of 48 hours they’ll have you taking on the whole Chinese mafia." Chip laughed again. "By the end of the week my ‘In’ basket will be overflowing with new applications. Which, by the way, I’m dumping in your ‘In’ basket," and Chip’s grin was brilliant. "Jamie’s going to have you glued to a desk job big time," and he chuckled as Lee laid his forehead back on his knees. Lee wasn’t sure how long he’d stayed that way when he felt a hand on his shoulder. "Lee?" Chip asked softly, and Lee finally raised his head, but still didn’t say anything. "What’s wrong?" Chip continued, his voice suddenly full of concern.
But Lee wasn’t sure he could put the demons into words just yet. He gave Chip a quick grin, although he wasn’t sure how effective it was, and rested his chin on his knee.
"Are you thinking Jamie’s still angry at you?" Chip asked softly.
"No," Lee answered honestly, just continuing to stare ahead.
"Because he’s not," Chip went on. "Now, if he finds out about this little stunt," Chip chuckled, "you’re on your own." Lee turned just enough to give Chip a quick smile, never taking his chin off his knee, then turning back to the ocean. "Lee?" Chip prodded gently.
"Screwed up, big time," came out miserably, without movement on Lee’s part.
"You weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders," Chip agreed. Lee just grunted disgustedly. "But I don’t understand. Why are you beating yourself up over this?"
"And I shouldn’t be?" Lee practically yelled. His head had popped up and turned toward Chip with the remark, then he had to close his eyes a moment to get back the focus that too quick movement cost him. His fist slammed into the sand. "Look at me," and his voice was filled with raw emotion. He opened his eyes again to glare at his friend, but they carried no anger, except at himself.
"It’s not like you weren’t motivated," Chip reasoned.
"Not to do anything this dumb," Lee mumbled and put his chin back on his knee with a huge sigh, staring out to sea.
"Excuse me, but I saw that note, too, you know. Once I stopped threatening to plant my foot in your backside," and he grinned as Lee, without lifting his head, turned it just enough to be able to see him, "I realized you were just doing what you always do – taking care of the rest of us."
"Yeah, right," came out disgustedly, and Lee returned his gaze to the tormented ocean.
"Hey, I was on that bus, too, remember. The jerk was threatening us all." When Lee didn’t answer he went on. "I’d like to think some of your motivation had to do with saving my incredibly worthwhile hide." He was pleased that while Lee didn’t move, the corner of his mouth twitched slightly. "And while it’s true you didn’t exactly have both oars in the water, it does make a bit of sense, convoluted perhaps but sense nonetheless, that all your years of working alone on ONI assignments would kick in and you’d just deal with it. Which you did, by the way. By the time everyone else showed up it was all over but the shouting."
"But…" Lee started, then didn’t continue.
"Talk to me, buddy," Chip said softly.
After a long silence, Lee looked in his direction again. "Not sure I can put it into words," he admitted painfully.
Chip grinned. "Told both Jamie and the Admiral I’d be checking on you, so we’ve got all night before either comes looking for you. Speaking of which, did you happen to bring a flashlight?" Lee just looked at him blankly. "Because of the storm it’s getting dark earlier than usual," Chip pointed out. "We should probably head back to your place."
Lee didn’t move for a bit, but the one constant he could always count on was Chip’s logic. He took one more sip of the beer and handed the still half-full bottle over, chuckling as Chip chug-a-lugged the remaining contents. Chip stood up, again curling the fingers of his left hand around both bottlenecks, then waited patiently as Lee tried to decide how much trouble he was going to have moving. Finally Lee reached his left hand out, comforted by the instant and firm grip Chip gave him. Chip didn’t pull, but nonetheless supported Lee as he rose slowly and painfully. Lee smiled to himself as Chip patiently matched his normally brisk pace to Lee’s much slower one. How could I have ever doubted he wouldn’t be there when I needed him, he thought as the two made their way back to Lee’s beach house, neither inclined to talk.
But once back in Lee’s living room, as he made his way toward his favorite chair, Chip stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Are you sure you don’t need me to call Jamie?" Chip asked worriedly. "You look like hell."
"No," came out stronger than Lee meant it, and he quickly gave Chip a shy smile. "No," he continued much softer. "Don’t bother him. I’ll be OK," and he lowered himself into his chair, unable to stifle a small groan.
"When are you due for your next pain pill?" Chip asked, his expression hardening as Lee just shrugged. "Where are they?" he demanded.
"Kitchen," Lee sighed. "On the windowsill," and he stretched out his long legs and closed his eyes. He listened as Chip walked away but didn’t immediately return. Instead, there were sounds of cupboards opening and the kettle rattling. He grinned as he envisioned Chip tracking down the ingredients for and preparing the inevitable hot chocolate. Lee didn’t make it much for himself, but he always kept some on hand for his friend.
Chip returned about ten minutes later with two mugs of the soothing brew, the tops nearly covered with floating mini marshmallows. He handed one of them to Lee, along with two pills Lee recognized as his pain meds. Lee made a face, which Chip just grinned at, and downed them with his first swallow of the rich drink. They sat in silence until Lee was about halfway through his mug, then Chip put his down and leaned forward.
"OK, Lee," and Lee looked at his friend over the top of his mug. "What’s going on between you and Jamie?"
"Nothing," Lee answered into his mug, refusing to meet Chip’s eyes.
"Bull!" Chip snorted. "You didn’t say fourteen words to him the entire way home."
"Couldn’t," Lee admitted softly.
"Then there is something going on," Chip stated triumphantly.
Lee shook his head. "Not between Doc and me. Just me."
Chip took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "So what is it you think you did to him?" Lee just continued to stare into his mug, and Chip finally reached out a foot and tapped Lee’s leg. "Sulk all you want, buddy. I’m not leaving ‘til I get an answer."
"Knowing you, you’re not leaving anyway," Lee said, a spark of humor in his voice.
Chip snorted loudly, but a grin started to appear. "There is that," he agreed. "However…"
Lee didn’t say anything for a long time. "He’s had to put up with so much from me," he finally got out.
"That’s a given," Chip agreed. "Your point being…?"
"It’s bad enough he has to deal with what I do to myself on the job. This was…personal."
"Damn it, Lee, we’ve been through this already. It was not. Well, not really, anyway."
Lee was frustrated that Chip wasn’t getting it. He launched himself to his feet, then had to stand there a bit, getting the pain his sudden movement had caused back under control before starting to pace the suddenly confining room. When he finally risked a glance, Chip’s only movement had been to settle more deeply into his chair. Standing with his back to Chip, staring at some pictures on the wall, he finally muttered, almost to himself, "This was different."
"How?" Chip asked softly.
It took Lee a few moments to answer. "This wasn’t a mission. I ran off on what amounted to a personal vendetta."
"That’s it," Chip said emphatically and abruptly stood. "I’m calling Jamie."
"No," Lee almost pleaded, turning to face his angry friend.
"Then think," Chip demanded. "That’s just the concussion talking. A healthy Lee Crane knows Jamie doesn’t just take care of his aches and pains. Jamie takes care of him! You know as well as I do, at least you should by now, that it makes no nevermind to him why you end up in Sick Bay. He cares enough about you that his only interest is in making sure you leave in one piece." With that Chip’s anger left him, and when he went on it was in a quieter voice. "I’m not going to stand here and tell you we all totally understand how the old memories and revelations affected your decision making. There’s no way we could. But I can tell you we accept your decision – at least for the most part," he added with a grin. Lee just shook his head. "Now," Chip continued, a bit of steel back in his voice, "sit back down and finish your cocoa. I’ll go fix us something for dinner…"
"I’m not hungry," Lee said automatically.
"Which you will eat," Chip continued slowly without missing a beat, enunciating carefully. "Then you’re going to bed. Hopefully, by the time you get up in the morning your brain will be working."
"And if I say no?"
"I’m calling Jamie," Chip said emphatically.
"That’s blackmail," Lee breathed.
"No joke, Sherlock," and Chip grinned evilly. "Deal?"
Lee heaved a huge sigh. "Deal," he acquiesced, and returned to his chair. As he sat and picked up his still half-full mug, Chip headed to the kitchen again. Lee polished off the cooling cocoa and laid his head against the back of the chair. Wasn’t just the concussion, Chip he thought grimly and closed his eyes. At least, I don’t think it was, and a gentle self-mocking smile barely touched his face. No matter, I guess. He could hear Chip checking the fridge. Knowing Seaview was due home today, someone would have laid in a few supplies to tide Lee over until he could go shopping. Business as usual? he wondered, thinking about how he was going to react the next time he ran into anyone from the boat. Was the tale already being made taller down at BZ’s? Jamie, did I really not destroy the connection I’ve been able to make with you over the years? Was it just another mission to you, too? Lee opened his eyes and sighed heavily. Did I really not mess up as badly as I think I did? Will everything look different when I stop hurting so much? Please be right, Chip, he breathed, and waited patiently for dinner to be ready.