Author’s note: A big Thank you to Susan who provided the inspiration for this one – she wanted to see more of Chip’s Mom after “Bonds of Friendship”. The title comes from Susan too – ‘Oscar Brothers’ being an old, somewhat outdated Navy way of referring to the CO/XO from the phonetic alphabet. As usual thanks to my betas, Liz and Lyn, for their support and encouragement.
by Fidelma C.
The silence in the nose was deafening.
Morton glanced up from his reports to surreptitiously look at the down-bent dark head across from him, signing off on yet more paperwork. He didn’t know quite how to break the silence. Hoped the other man would do it first.
He almost snorted – some hope there! If there was anyone who brooded more than Lee Crane, Chip Morton had yet to meet him. And given the current circumstances – well, it was no wonder that Lee was affording him the silent treatment. It had been an inordinately difficult mission and the entire crew was hurting, both physically and emotionally.
Chip had never seen a crew scramble for liberty as Seaview’s had this time. They were all more than ready to re-affirm their family obligations in the face of one of the most intense, important and life-threatening missions they’d ever encountered.
ONLY 11 days! But if the aching
muscles, pounding head and bruised ribs were anything to go by – his at least –
then he could only imagine how Lee was feeling, having been actually out there
on the ice during the rescue attempt.
His new CO had to be feeling even worse than he did. Not that Lee Crane would ever – EVER – admit
to being anything less than 100%. The
man wasn’t capable of acknowledging illness or injury – at least not the man
Chip had known at
He grinned wryly. It had been a tough adjustment for him – suddenly having his best friend and younger brother in all but blood as his CO. But it had been rougher on the crew - adjusting to a new captain, grieving for their murdered commander, coupled with a fraught and dangerous mission with possible catastrophic repercussions for the entire world if they’d failed. Not that the crew had been privy to that level of detail until the mission was well underway and it had become necessary for the admiral to explain why someone was so intent on stopping them that they’d sent drone planes and an enemy sub to try to get rid of them.
Morton wished Lee would look at him but his
friend seemed intent on completing the stack of reports Chip had already signed
off on and pushed across the table towards him.
Chip was worried about Lee. He’d
shrugged off any attempt to have Doc take a look at him. Not that Doc had tried all that hard. One glare from the golden eyes had Baines
backing off hastily, muttering that he had patients to see to that actually
appreciated his help; as he oversaw his corpsmen take Wilson and Malone to
Lee had become the man – the captain – Morton had known from their Academy days that he could be. Chip had no illusions. While he was a perfectly adequate XO – OK, maybe more than adequate – and perhaps could someday be a perfectly competent captain, he knew he would never be the leader that Lee Crane was. Lee had an innate ability to be more than just a captain – he was a commander of men in the true sense of the word. Even in the few days he’d been aboard Seaview he’d more than proved his worth. No surprise that Nelson had pulled strings to hold onto him. Chip’s grin broadened. Despite his desperate sorrow at John Phillips’ death - he had genuinely liked and respected and hadn’t yet had time to truly grieve for Seaview’s previous captain – he knew from this one mission that the boat and its crew had moved up a gear in performance under Lee’s command.
Looking at the down-bent head in front of him – the captain still busily signing off on reports – he wondered if Lee would accept Nelson’s invitation. Chip found himself eagerly hoping so.
His introspection was broken from two sides. The mic on the edge of the table squawked to life and, simultaneously, footsteps sounded from the direction of the control room.
Lifting the mic, he snapped off. “Morton.”
“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” The deck watch knew he and the captain would be signing off the cruise reports. “But there’s a lady on the dock asking for you and Captain Crane.”
Morton eyebrows rose enquiringly. “Asking for me and the captain?”
Chip saw golden eyes rise to meet his, a question in the striking depths. Morton shrugged in response, twisting to look up at Seaview’s dock through the remarkable Herculite windows that gave the boat her name - wincing at the pull on his sore ribs - while Crane rose slowly and rounded the table for a similar view.
As they strained to see the lady in question, the mic squawked again – the speaker sounding confused. “She says she’s your mother, Sirs.”
Three voices sounded in chorus. From the captain and XO spluttered “Mom!” while with evident pleasure the just arrived three-star admiral uttered “Claire!”
“I’m a little confused, Lee.” Nelson lit a cigarette, eyes twinkling, as he motioned the young commander to re-take his seat. “Mom?”
Crane’s eyes lowered and he cast a glance – which in future years Nelson would come to know well – through his eyelashes at the older man. “I…ahh, sort of call Chip’s mom, well, Mom, sir.”
Noting his friend’s embarrassment – and the colour climbing his olive cheeks – Morton, as was usual, came to his rescue. “Lee used to come home with me a lot when we were at the Academy, sir. His mother worked full time and travelled quite a bit back then and during vacation Lee came to us. We… sort of adopted him. For sure Mom did.”
“I see.” And Nelson did too. He’d known Claire Morton for many years – in fact since before either of the two young men facing him were born – and he knew her to be a warm, nurturing, maternal woman who would have taken the too-shy youngster he remembered from his teaching days at Annapolis under her wing, adding him to her family as naturally as night followed day.
Chip’s trademark XO mask had slipped to reveal a questioning expression. “You called her ‘Claire’. You know my mother, sir?”
“I did, Chip, many years ago.” If Morton didn’t know the full story then it wasn’t his place to enlighten him. “And I’ve only seen her briefly a couple of times since then. In fact, it’s going to take you two another hour or so to finish up here, I’d guess?” At the nods from his officers, he crushed out the half-smoked cigarette and stood. “Then why don’t I entertain your mother and you two can join me in my office when you’re done.”
Knowing no arguments would be forthcoming, Nelson settled his cover on his russet hair and, picking up his briefcase, nodded at his senior officers and quickly scaled the ladder topside.
Leaving two equally stunned gentlemen behind him.
The blonde was serene, happy to bask in the Californian sunshine, casting admiring glances over the giant grey leviathan that was home to some of her most precious cargo for much of their life, and recently more than that one cherished person. She’d followed the news reports, learning about Lee’s secondment to Seaview in the aftermath of John Phillips’ murder and, being a Navy mother, had read between the lines. She’d been worried sick for both her boys – the son of her body and the son of her heart – guessing the media coverage had been carefully screened and toned down to avoid mass hysteria and panicked reactions from a scared public. But she’d known if anyone could pull it off it would be Harry Nelson and his crew and, knowing the man as she did, she’d had every confidence that he would bring his entire crew back alive, if at all conceivably possible and - God willing - whole. She’d watched the crew depart for liberty, seen some stretcher cases taken off the boat from the aft hatch and transferred to a waiting ambulance. Her heart had been in her mouth until she’d assured herself that neither of the heads showing above well tucked in blankets had hair that was flaxen straight or dense black curls.
Activity around the dock had quieted after the crew had departed for shore leave, taking their waiting loved ones with them. She was now the only person left shore-side besides the deck watch who eyed her curiously. A burly man sporting the insignia of a Chief had approached her a short time ago and she’d smilingly given her name and the fact that she was mom to both the captain and XO. That had produced raised eyebrows, for sure, as he’d passed the message to alert the senior officers.
But she was quite content to wait here in the waning afternoon sunlight, knowing her boys were likely finishing their mission reports and would be the last ones off the boat. She was slightly apprehensive - it had to have been a tough mission all round but what concerned her most was how her boys had re-acted, each to the other, in roles which were poles apart from their usual ones. And which surely must have impacted on their relationship during the gruelling days just past.
She closed her eyes momentarily, praying – thanking God for their safe return; anything else could be worked out. She had absolute faith that their relationship – brotherhood - was deep enough, true enough, to endure anything life could throw at it, in fact would probably thrive on it. For they were brothers as sure as if she’d borne them both.
A figure emerged from the boat and she watched with increasing pleasure as it transformed into the handsome man she’d first met some thirty-odd years ago. He wasn’t overly tall but he had a presence that transcended other things – a fine figure of a man, as her Scottish grandmother would have said. His russet hair was hidden beneath his cover but his craggy features lit with a huge grin as he espied her watching him. Her soft pink lips parted in a warm, genuinely delighted smile as he approached.
“Harry! I had so hoped to see you!”
“Claire, it’s been too long!”
Encumbered as he was with his bulging briefcase, he still managed to snag her around the waist one-handed and draw her into a warm embrace. She hugged him back fiercely; glad the old feelings were still as strong as ever.
“Come on, let’s go up to my office and talk. Lee and Chip are going to be another hour or more. I told them I’d look after you until they put the boat to bed. Let’s find somewhere comfortable to have a drink, talk over old times, tell me what you’re doing here and why now.”
She studied him carefully, noting the shadows beneath his eyes, the exhaustion evident in his worn features and the lines of tension around his mouth, although both the man and his words exuded enthusiasm. “You look tired, Harry. You need to go home and get some sleep. I’m perfectly happy to stay here and wait for Chip and Lee. You don’t need to look after me.”
“Maybe I do, Claire. It’s been a while but perhaps you’re the sounding board I need – if you’re prepared to listen to an old and foolish man tell you all about his pipe dream.”
Her laughter sounded bright as she hugged his arm to hers and they began the short trek towards the Institute’s Administration building. “Harry! Come on, you – old and foolish? Give me a break! You’re the same age I am - and I’m certainly not admitting to old! And foolish? I don’t think so! Not with the number of letters you could put after your name!”
He chuckled dryly. “Sometimes it’s not the years you’ve spent on the planet, it’s what your body tells you it’s done with them that counts!”
She stopped, pulling him gently to a halt, and turned to face him. “It was awful, wasn’t it? Not just the mission. But losing John like that. You haven’t had the luxury of grieving yet. It hasn’t really hit home, I’ll bet. You’ve had to put your feelings on the back burner and get on with the task at hand, haven’t you?
That’s part of the reason I came, Harry. Bill and I both knew it would be tough on Chip. I only met John a couple of times – when Seaview’s keel was laid and at her launch. He seemed like a good man. I know Chip was very fond of him and must be hurting desperately. It’s going to be difficult to find a replacement.”
He started to walk again, keeping hold of her arm – it was comforting and he finally admitted to himself that she was right. He was tired - more than tired - dispirited and heartbroken. The adrenalin high he’d been on for the past several days, following the successful completion of the mission, was draining fast. But Claire’s quiet undemanding company, and the way she empathised with his emotions, were soothing his worn body and battered soul. It had been two weeks of pure hell. Now he had someone he could talk to, be himself with, and he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.
“I think I already have. At least - I hope so.”
She cottoned on fast. “Lee?”
They had reached the steps to the
The two men in Seaview’s nose looked at each other with almost identical comical expressions.
“Mom?” Barely above a whisper from Chip.
“And Nelson?” Slightly appalled from Lee.
Chip shuddered delicately and sank down into the chair he had recently vacated, watching as Lee did the same. He knew exactly what his adopted brother was thinking. Your commanding officer and – your MOTHER?
“She never said…. That she knew him, I mean.” The blond head shook in wonderment. “You’d think she’d have mentioned it.”
Crane shrugged. “He said it was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but you’d think she’d have mentioned it!” Chip was still astounded. His head popped up to gaze aghast at his friend. “You don’t think they….”
“STOP! Do NOT go there!”
“I mean it, Chip. That much information I DON’T need!”
Chip’s lips settled into a grim line and he attacked the remaining paperwork with renewed vigour. “Come on, the quicker we get finished up here the better.”
“What would you like to drink, Claire?” Nelson asked, having seated her on one of the comfortable sofas in his large, well appointed office. He moved to the wet bar and mini fridge, by-passing the coffee Angie had brewed when she’d seen the boat dock.
His stalwart secretary had been delighted to see him - and stunned to learn the identity of the blonde accompanying him. He’d seen her eyes widen as she took his briefcase. And she’d only managed a stammered greeting for Claire. Nelson knew the cause – in young-person’s-speak Angie ‘fancied’ Chip Morton. Not that she would ever have admitted it or acted upon it. She was the consummate perfectly professional P.A. – the best he’d had. But to be unexpectedly confronted with the mother of the object of her ‘fancy’, for that woman to be an elegant natural blonde (age probably now requiring a little help from Clairol) whose son had inherited her beautiful azure eyes, and it was little wonder that his usually perky, no nonsense P.A. was stumbling over her words. Instructing her wryly to inform him when Captain Crane and Commander Morton arrived, he had propelled Claire into his office.
“I haven’t changed, Harry, at least not much – I still favour white wine, if you have it. I love your Californian blends. If not, coffee’s fine.”
“No, I have a particularly good Chardonnay from a little known winery that sends me the best of their vintage each year. I think you’ll like this one.” He opened the mini fridge and pulled out a chilled bottle, uncorking it deftly and handing her a crystal goblet filled with the pale gold liquid.
She sipped and arched an approving eyebrow as he poured a liberal Irish whiskey for himself. “Knowing you, you probably own the winery! Or at the very least have shares in it. And this is really good.”
“Guilty, I’m afraid.” He chuckled; her words were appreciative, not censorious. He shrugged, a little deprecatorily, more used to his detractors – despite his financial successes – than his supporters.
Her bright gurgle of laughter warmed him in ways he didn’t want to contemplate.
“Oh, Harry. You haven’t changed a bit!” She buried her nose in the glass, savouring the distinctive bouquet of the wine; heard his amused snort as the years melted back to the first time she’d met the young red-haired midshipman, roommate of her intended, at an invitational at the Academy.
She sighed, melancholy sweeping over her – uninvited and unwelcome – knowing it was out of place but unable to dismiss it as she’d done so ruthlessly over the years. Perhaps it was this one-on-one with Harry – something she’d scrupulously avoided since she’d married – that had triggered the memories. Suddenly she felt young again – young and bereft. She stirred restlessly – those memories belonged in the place to which she’d relegated them many years ago and had no place re-surfacing here.
Harry was only marking time until her sons came to collect her. He’d invited her here to tell her of his plans for the new captain of Seaview – she so hoped he’d meant Lee. It was her sons’ dream to serve together but, due to the policies of the Navy – not to mention her husband’s machinations – they’d til now been denied the opportunity. She prayed Harry was going to bring this dream to fruition – as he’d unknowingly done for both her boys in the past.
To hell with it! She was going to ask the question that was eating at her. She might never again have this opportunity. Hesitant, her voice was smaller than she’d wanted.
“Harry, do you ever think of Brad?”
He started; not that he
hadn’t anticipated the question.
He’d waited almost thirty years for her to bring it up but he still felt
a wave of grief overwhelm him when he thought of his young handsome
He’d seen similarities in the relationship
between Crane and Morton – they’d been practically joined at the hip at both
His room assignment with Bradley Redmond III,
way back when, had produced the first real friendship of Nelson’s young
Deeply in love with his high-school sweetheart, Claire O’Donnell, Brad had droned on – and on – about his girl. Harry had come to know her even before he’d met her, from his roomie’s confidences. He knew that Brad planned to become engaged to her as soon as he graduated the Academy and, from the letters he’d received from his intended, Harry surmised she was as enamoured as Brad was.
He dragged himself back to the present, masking the reminiscences by taking a measured sip from his glass before answering. He’d avoided this conversation on the several occasions he’d met her since Chip had come to Seaview. This, the first time they’d been entirely alone – at his instigation – was perhaps a reaction to the close encounter with his maker he’d had during recent weeks and it had awakened distant memories.
“Harry? If you… don’t care to talk about it, it’s OK. Really.” She concentrated on her wine, sipping pleasurably, not wanting to put him on the spot. But over the years she’d wondered if he’d held it against her. While he’d been more than welcoming on the few occasions they’d met since Chip had come to serve on Seaview, she’d never had the opportunity to talk to him privately or ask him openly how he’d reacted to her marriage following Brad’s death.
Nelson cleared his throat and contemplated the amber liquid in his glass. Maybe this conversation was way overdue. “No, it’s all right, Claire. I do think of him sometimes, not so much now as in the early days – after he died.”
“Me too. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been killed in that accident – if we’d gone ahead and married.”
Nelson’s eyebrows rose in silent query.
“Oh, yeah.” He had to strain to hear her as she buried her nose in the glass. “I was having doubts. It just seemed like we’d always been together – it was ‘expected’ that we’d get engaged as soon as Brad graduated. It was what both our families wanted – and then there was Bill.”
Nelson knew that Bill Morton had been the other
member of their high school triumvirate.
He vividly remembered the touching eulogy the young army officer had
He tuned back in as she continued softly. “Looking back, I think I was in love with the
idea of being in love. We were so young.
I did love Brad, but not in the way a
woman needs to love the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with. I think the Academy showed me that – I just
didn’t miss him like I should have for the four years he was gone. And then the idea of tours of duty didn’t
faze me like they should have. Whereas
when Bill was sent to
Harry could empathise fully – he’d lost friends during that horrific war, young men like himself who’d signed up to serve their country in the best way they could and who’d returned in body bags. Assailed by the grim memories he abruptly stood and stalked to the wet bar, pouring himself another drink and taking a stiff belt before refreshing Claire’s wine. “It…was a difficult time – for everyone.”
“But it showed me that my feelings for Bill were a lot stronger than I’d realised. I just didn’t know how to tell Brad – or Bill, for that matter. And before I had the opportunity, Brad was dead. I couldn’t believe it – suddenly he was just gone. And everyone was treating me like I was made from spun glass – as if I’d shatter any minute. And I guess I was in shock for a time. But then so was Bill – he loved Brad too, as much as I did. And then there were just the two of us. Neither of us could believe he wasn’t going to come waltzing in, home for a vacation, making plans for all of us.” She smiled wistfully, caught up in the memories. “It drew us closer, Bill and me and, as he’d finished his tour and started in his father’s business, we spent a lot of time together. At first it was mostly to talk about Brad – then it changed. We changed. Oh, I don’t know why I’m telling you this.” She set down the wineglass and stood, moving to the large picture window that overlooked the dock where Seaview resided.
“Maybe because you need to.” Nelson suggested, now needing to hear it as much as Claire needed to say it.
“I’ve never told anyone else about that time in my life, Harry.” She turned, crossing her arms around her middle in a defensive gesture. “There was no one for me to talk to. His parents, my family, they all assumed that I was overcome with grief – and I was, but there was also a huge sense of relief that shamed me terribly. I wasn’t going to have to tell Brad that I couldn’t marry him. I’m not sure I actually could have done it, you see.
I’d have probably married him, coward that I was, and made both of us miserable. We were so young, when I think about it. Too young to be making life choices, I know now. Not that anyone could have told us that back then.”
She flashed him a grin that he knew had been devastating in her younger days – he’d seen a similar one on her son’s face have a disconcerting affect on the Institute’s female staff.
“And then Bill confessed that he’d had feelings for me too but had been reluctant to come between Brad and me.” Her smile faded and she sighed unconsciously, picking at a loose thread on the sleeve of her jacket. “And therein lay much of the problem in our marriage until recently.” Her blue eyes met his surprised ones squarely. “Oh, yes, Harry, our marriage has had its rough spots – ones we’ve managed quite successfully to hide from the kids, I suspect. Bill had this absurd idea that he was second best – that I wouldn’t have married him if Brad hadn’t died. Of course he didn’t tell me how he really felt until we were already married. And I’m afraid I didn’t handle it as well as I might have. No point in going into the details now but, suffice to say, it explains much of the way Bill behaved when it came to Chip’s choice of career.
Bill wanted his only son to go into the family
business – as he himself had – but was prepared to allow Chip to go to
She caught the growl that Nelson tried to hide by taking a hefty swallow from his drink.
“Oh, don’t think too badly of him, Harry. He was genuinely afraid for his son. Bill was devastated by Brad’s loss, more than I think even he realised – until Chip came home full of the news that he was going into submarine service. Bill hit the roof. He expected his son to ‘do his duty’ to the country that had provided his education but not by signing on for the long term. In his opinion, Chip should put in his time, in as mundane a fashion as he could, and then get out and join him in the business. But I think he was truly terrified that he would lose Chip in the same way that he’d lost Brad.
If it happened today there’d be therapy available and that might have made a difference. But that option wasn’t open to us back then – it was seen as a weakness to need a shrink to sort through your problems. And Bill couldn’t have handled it. Not then.”
“But since?” Nelson asked the question hesitantly – he was seeing a different side to the woman he’d thought he’d known for years, as first his friend’s girl and then as his XO’s mother.
“Actually yes, Harry, and it’s partly due to you.” She smiled and sipped her drink at his startled expression. “Yes. I think when you offered Chip the job on Seaview Bill finally realised that his son wasn’t going to cave in to his wishes, come home and dutifully take his place in the family firm. He could see Chip’s enthusiasm and excitement and he was forced to re-evaluate his opinion of a lot of things – including our marriage.”
Intuitively Nelson could almost perceive the scenario. “You gave him an ultimatum.”
“After a lot of soul searching on my part. But he needed a wake up call and, in the end, I found the courage to hammer it home to him that he wasn’t second best and shouldn’t take out his own fears and frustrations on his son. He found a therapist he could work with and the rest, as they say, is history. And he’d be mortified if he knew I’d ever told you any of this. Or if Chip found out.”
“Bill has nothing to fear from me.” Nelson promised, privileged to be the recipient of thirty years of this resilient woman’s history – and gaining at the same time an insight into his so-proper, reticent exec. At Claire’s nod of appreciation, he felt almost obligated to share some history of his own. “I’ve sometimes wondered if you resented me for pulling Chip out of the regular Navy for Seaview. You must know he’d have had his third stripe by now if I hadn’t yanked him.”
Her burst of laughter stopped him in his tracks. “Oh, Harry, Chip wouldn’t BE in the Navy now if you hadn’t ‘yanked’ him. Don’t you know how much he hated the Pentagon? Being tied to a desk, day-in day-out? Away from his beloved ocean? For a kid from a land-locked state he took to the ocean like a native – must have been all those weekends we spent on the lakes.” Sobering, she confided, a little diffidently and fidgeting, somehow…discomfited. “It was the worst thing Bill could have done to him – taking him away from the sea. He called in favours from his old buddies who’d remained in the services and made sure that Chip was desk bound – and unfortunately Chip’s aptitude for computers helped him there.
He really did want to ensure his safety, Harry,
but he also hoped that Chip would get so pissed off with his assignments that
he would quit when he realised that he wouldn’t get a sea posting any time
soon. Your offer came at a crucial point
in Chip’s career. I knew he was
seriously considering quitting. He
couldn’t have borne much more of that desk job.
Not that he would have come home to join Bill in the business. I know my son. He’d probably have ended up running charters
And, as much as he loves Lee and was glad for
him, it was torture when he saw him get the XO job on the
“I seriously considered calling you – asking you for a favour; to use your influence to get him a posting at sea. Anything, once he was away from a desk. The only thing that stopped me was that I knew Chip would kill me if he found out I’d interfered - and his relationship with his father was enough to cope with, without having him mad at me too.”
Nelson grinned, knowing the implacability that was so ingrained in his exec. He could appreciate Claire’s position – caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Pushed a little further out of his comfort zone by this intuitive woman, he took refuge in the amber liquid, swirling it contemplatively around the glass.
“You know I’ve always kept an eye on both Chip’s and Lee’s careers since they left the Academy. Crane was easy to keep track of – he’d early on caught the attention of the Brass. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that Morton wasn’t getting the breaks he should have been – that he’d been stultified – riding a desk when his talents were obviously better deployed elsewhere. The midshipmen who graduate first and second in their class at the Academy are not expected to disappear into the realms of obscurity in the Navy. There had to be an explanation and so, when I conceived and began to build Seaview, I went looking. I knew that Chip would make an exemplary XO. He has the necessary organisational and interpersonal skills that make for a superb exec and he’s also earned the respect of the men, which is not always the case with a boat’s XO.”
“I don’t know Navy, Harry, but I do know
my son – sons.” She corrected with a
small smile. “Chip is a wonderful
organiser and a very good ‘people person’.
And he loves NIMR and Seaview – more than he’s loved anything
“Claire, you know I value your opinion. We go back a long way.”
The old uptight-when-he-was-way-too-serious Harry coming to the fore, he struggled to put words to well defined thoughts. “And yes, you’re right. I want – have always wanted – Lee to command Seaview. But initially the Brass insisted on a more experienced captain and they wouldn’t release Lee. I guess this latest crisis proved to them, if nothing else, that he is the best man for the job and they’ve given me leave to offer him the position.”
He couldn’t repress a delighted grin and Claire returned it, toasting him lightly with her wineglass. “You always did get your way – eventually!”
“Now, Claire, you know me too well. I do bide my time….”
“You’re usually proved right, Harry. And your patience pays off in the end – I know that of old! Lee must be thrilled.”
Nelson’s mouth turned down slightly and he took a healthy gulp from his glass as he rose and paced with impatient steps to the window overlooking the Sub Pen. “He hasn’t given me an answer as yet. Oh, initially he seemed pleased – a little shocked to be released from the Navy into the Reserves – but we were all running on pure adrenalin by then. He’s asked me for a couple of days to think it over.”
Watching him carefully, Claire sipped from her glass. “That sounds wise. It’s a big decision, Harry. He’d just gotten his first Navy command before this mission and I’m sure it’ll be a wrench to leave her and her crew, even for a boat as wonderful as Seaview.”
Nelson’s free hand made an impatient slashing motion, almost dismissive of her comment. He’d thought Crane would jump at the chance to captain his ‘lady’.
Her voice gentled. “Harry, he’s young. Give him time to absorb the offer you’ve made
him. He’s just taken command of the
The wisdom of her words hit him squarely. He’d known in his heart that he would have to let Lee make up his own mind.
He vividly recalled the thrill of his own first command. He’d hoped that the lure of Seaview, and the exhilaration of saving the world on his first mission aboard her, would be sufficient to sway Crane into making a snap decision. In the cold light of day, a little whiskey warming his bloodstream, he realised that a ‘snap decision’ would not be in either party’s best interest. Claire was right – he had to let Lee make the decision that was right for him, and hopefully right for Seaview. Crane’s unorthodox entry had put the backs of many crewmembers up and, although Lee’d overcome much of the disapproval during their fraught mission, having him as permanent captain would be difficult for some of the crew. Nelson knew Lee would be a very different commander than John had been.
John. A niggle of guilt – remorse – regret – beset him. John Phillips had been a true friend, a good colleague and a fine captain for his lady. Why then did he feel a sliver of disloyalty towards John’s memory by anticipating what a great captain Lee Crane would make? Having seen Lee in action on this one mission he knew that Seaview would be propelled to even greater heights with Crane at the helm.
She could read his mind – he would forever after swear it!
“Harry, don’t feel guilty about replacing John. He’d be the first one to tell you that it’s absolutely necessary to move on.”
He cleared his throat but his voice was still a little husky. “Thank you, Claire. You have a unique way of putting things into perspective. And you’re right. I haven’t dealt with John’s death yet. I’ve been dreading visiting Lucy – John’s widow - and that’s not right.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Harry. You’ve barely reached home and you’re exhausted. You’ll have time now to come to terms with things and do what’s necessary – and what’s right for you.
And if Lee is the one you want, then go for it. I can tell you it won’t take that young man long to know what he wants, whether that’s what suits you ultimately or not.”
He contemplated for a moment, somewhat grateful for the subject change – it hurt a lot to think of John, gone forever solely because he’d worked for NIMR – then he ventured. “How do you think Lee and Chip will react to becoming colleagues – CO and XO respectively?”
She considered the question with the seriousness it merited.
“I’m not naïve enough to think there won’t be
teething problems, Harry. It’ll be an
adjustment for them both. Chip’s been on
board since her launch. He’s very
protective of Seaview – he adores her - and he was very fond of
John. But he was genuinely thrilled for
Lee when he got command of the
But, as in any sibling relationship, there will be a touch of rivalry. That’s human nature. And it’ll be up to you, to a point, to define their respective roles initially so that it’s minimised. Not that I don’t think they’ll work that out for themselves, PDQ!
They are both consummate professionals – perfectionists - and they’ll bring that to their command style. There’ll be a period of adjustment, without a doubt, and it may not be much fun for those around them while they define a proper working relationship, on and off duty. But it’ll happen pretty fast, if I’m any judge of their characters. It’s been both of their dreams to work together since they graduated. They’ll make it work, I’m confident of that. They’ll want to make it work, Harry. And they’ll make a great team – once they iron out the initial dilemmas!”
“And how will you feel, Claire, having both of them serving aboard her? Knowing the dangers they’ll likely face, given Seaview’s growing profile.”
Her smile held a touch of wistfulness. “I can’t answer you that – easily, Harry.
I’ll worry, of course – but that’s part of my life, wherever they serve. In some ways, in both his attitudes and
aptitudes - and I could never admit this to Bill - Chip could be as much Brad’s
as he is Bill’s. I think God was trying
to give me something of Brad to hold onto, to dream with – if that doesn’t
sound too fanciful. When Brad died, I
did my grieving. And I don’t ever want
to go through anything like that again.
How much worse it would be, to grieve for either of my boys. And they are both my boys, Harry! If you’d only known Lee as he was when I
first met him!
She knew she was digressing but took a deep breath and a healthy slug of alcohol before she spoke again. “But it’s THEIR career choice, THEIR life. And I’ll temper my fears with the thought that they’re looking out for each other, there for each other. I know Chip sees himself as the ‘older’ brother but it’ll do him good to have to accept Lee in a superior officer role - sometimes. He’ll deal with it – but I’m sure he’ll get him back for it, off boat. And it’ll give Lee a balance that’s been missing in his life to date so far; he’s usually deferred to Chip as the ‘elder lemon’, now he’ll have to boss him around….”
Nelson snorted into his glass. “From what I’ve seen thus far, he won’t have too much of a problem there.”
“See, Harry, you have a totally different perspective on them than I do.” Claire Morton chuckled then sobered quickly. “They’re both Navy, through and through, and they have the professionalism and the supreme regard for each other to ensure it works for the betterment of the boat, I’m convinced of that.”
“I think you’re right, Claire. And I know that Chip wants Lee to stay on. I spoke to him before we docked. Told him I intended to offer Lee permanent captaincy. I owed him that much. More than just to present him with a fait accompli. He’s a wonderful exec – and I’m not just saying that because you’re his mother!”
She dipped her head in silent acknowledgement – warmed by his obvious regard for her first born.
“Chip told me he’d hoped I would ask Lee to stay on. Said he would welcome the opportunity to serve with him. Could see that, despite the initial resentment from the crew, Lee had earned their respect and would in time have their complete and utter devotion. That wasn’t BS either. He told me straight that he wasn’t ready for a captaincy – he’d been too long behind a desk and hadn’t Lee’s experience or flair. But he would be behind Lee one hundred percent and looked forward to serving with him.”
Claire Morton had never been prouder of her eldest son than she was at that moment. “He’ll do everything he can to ease Lee into his new role, Harry. And he’ll try to take care of him too, if Lee will let him. Oh, he’ll never undermine him on the boat, but a word of caution!” A smirk he’d seen exhibited on her son’s face once or twice crossed hers briefly. “Be prepared for his retaliation off duty. He’s an expert at payback – and he’ll re-assert his role as ‘big brother’ when he can, just to let Lee know he won’t have it all his own way!”
Nelson chuckled. She was right on the money – he would bet his fortune on it – and could see the sparks that would fly, already relishing the added value the new command structure would bring to his best girl.
“What about Lee’s mother, Claire? How will she react to him giving up the Navy for a private research boat?” He knew Lee’s father had been career Navy until his untimely death when Lee was a small boy.
“She’ll deal, Harry. She always has. She’s wonderful and adaptable. She’s had to be, to get where she is. She was so young to be widowed and left with Lee little more than a baby and she did a terrific job raising him. What she’s accomplished, both personally and professionally, is remarkable and we’re all so proud of her. I just wish I’d known them both when Lee was younger so that we could have been there to take some of the pressure off her. It might have made things easier for her and for sure would have for Lee – he spent a lot of time being farmed out to relatives before he came into our lives.” She shrugged – it was somewhat of a mystery to her how a woman could be so unmaternal. While Claire genuinely liked Abby and had no doubt that she dearly loved Lee, he was treated as more of a prized specimen than a son. “But she’ll accept any decision he makes – unreservedly –and be thrilled for him.”
“Claire, Claire! You can’t mother the whole world!” Nelson admonished, shaking his head. “Lee’s done just fine. And since you and Chip all but adopted him he’s had the best of both worlds; CEO of a Fortune 500 company for a mother and a wonderful mom and family to ground him. You have a right to be proud of both your boys, Mama Morton!”
She grinned easily at the term he’d so obviously picked up from her son, shortened through familiarity to mom, as Chip and her girls used. “He’s neither mine nor yours, Harry, but we both love him like he is.”
Nelson gave one of his patented ‘harrumphs’, obviously embarrassed, and declined to comment.
She needled him mercilessly, as he’d done to her in their younger days. “Go on, admit it, Harry! You built Seaview with Lee in mind to command her!”
He couldn’t deny it, having already admitted
that he’d been deprived of Lee to captain her in the first instance. The too serious,
way-too-intelligent-for-his-years, youngster had reminded him of himself when
they’d first met at the Academy. He’d
been inextricably drawn to the boy and had hoped Lee would have the benefit of
a ‘Brad Redmond’ to ease his passage through the rigours of
Lee’s first few weeks with Morton had been …difficult, the slightly older boy initially resenting the pairing. But by the end of the first semester they’d been all but joined at the hip. Lee’s mother being out of town for the Christmas break, Chip had taken Lee home for the holiday and a new member of the Morton clan had been adopted. Claire had taken the boy under her wing and smothered him with a brand of familial loving, kindness and scolding he’d never known heretofore. She’d even gone so far over the years to add Abby Crane to the family unit, showing the woman who’d borne Lee how enriched his life - and hers - had become with the introduction of the Morton family. Chip had come to enjoy and appreciate Abby too. She’d been a wonderful source of research for some of their projects – her font of business knowledge unequal to anything they’d experienced – until Nelson. Henceforth she’d become familiarly known to both boys as MAC – Ms. Abby Crane, a title she secretly enjoyed more than Mother/Mom.
She’d willingly ceded the title of Mom to Claire Morton and was content to be MAC to both her natural and adopted sons – for she too had recognised Lee’s need for a sibling and gathered Chip into their small family unit, welcoming him somewhat shyly at first as the second son she’d have given anything for, had Lee’s father lived.
Harry had only met her once - on the occasion of Lee’s graduation from the Academy. She’d sat with the Mortons and he’d shaken her hand briefly. She’d been reserved, even as Claire had been her exuberant self and smothered both the embarrassed boys in hugs and kisses.
“Both Lee and Chip caught a lot of people’s attention at the Academy, Claire. Not just mine.” He blustered then flushed somewhat under her knowing gaze.
“But you talked to him about your design concept for Seaview, Harry. I remember him coming home one holiday full of it. Chip was sceptical, as I recall, and Lee defended you hotly. They got into quite a squabble – before Lee wore Chip down.” She grinned wickedly at Harry’s reddened cheeks. “Sometimes I think that’s why Chip disagrees with Lee – just to get a rise out of him, make him justify his argument. He eggs Lee on and then, just when he’s got him where he wants him, Chip does a complete about face and…. Well, suffice to say, I hope you’ve got plenty of band-aids on your boat. From memory, it used to get quite physical!”
Watching him closely while he paced around the large, well appointed office, she spotted the disquiet that momentarily crossed his features. “What?”
Nelson shrugged his shoulders under the elegantly tailored uniform jacket, turning to stare out the window again at his ‘best girl’. “Nothing, really. I just suspect that if Lee does take up the captaincy, I’ll be looking for a new CMO.”
He jerked back to glare at her as peals of laughter assailed him. “Sorry, Harry! Don’t tell me he’s managed to piss off your doctor on his first cruise? Or has his reputation preceded him?”
“Explain!” Nelson barked. “Please.” Softening his tone at her raised eyebrow. Another expression he’d seen her son use effectively on wayward sailors.
“Lee has a complete and utter phobia about all things medical, Harry. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t honestly know. But he shies away from doctors, regularly ignores his own ill-health and when it comes to injuries – well, suffice to say, unless they’re just short of lethal he won’t admit to them, much less seek treatment voluntarily.”
The admiral’s glare sharpened as he recalled Baines’ complaint that he’d thought the captain was hurting but, when the medic had tackled the man, Crane had denied it and rebuffed his offer of treatment. Nelson had also noticed Lee’s exhaustion and careful movements when they’d finally been headed home but he’d just put it down to the fall in adrenalin levels precipitated by the mission. “Damn! I should have known better.”
“You’ll get to spot the signs.” Claire comforted. “He doesn’t even realise he does it but he gives off these subtle little signals. Like when he has a headache, he rubs his middle finger along his right temple and when he’s agitated he twists his ring around and around. When he’s really distracted and at his wits end, he runs his hand through his hair. And when he’s really, really hurting you can read it in his eyes. Those little flecks of green just disappear and they go kinda flat brown. Trust Chip, Harry. He can read Lee like a book.”
exec is probably the least likely person on the boat to willingly visit
“Lee’s been rubbing off on him, for sure!” The XO’s mother agreed. “Chip’s always been stubborn, unable to admit
to any weakness that an illness or injury might enforce. But Lee takes it to new levels, Harry. Even Chip admits that. I know there were a couple of times at the
Academy when he had to browbeat Lee into going to the medical centre,
practically had to drag his tail there!
And that’s saying something – coming from my son, who has to have a
partially severed limb before he’ll accept a painkiller!” She shuddered with an obviously horrific
memory. “I’ve asked Abby if there’s
anything traumatic in Lee’s past that would account for it but she can’t come
up with anything. It seemed to only
“This is serious, Claire. I can’t have someone in command of the boat who ignores medical advice. What does that say to the crew? They’ll have no respect for the CMO if the captain doesn’t. Hell, I’ve lost confidence in Baines already!”
“Then maybe you need to find someone who can handle Lee, Harry, if you truly want him in command. And probably Chip, too. But, you know, Lee’s the type that will insist on treatment for everyone else around him – while totally downplaying his own need! In fact, if you want my advice, you’ll pit Lee and Chip against each other. One will ensure and, indeed, harass the other into getting the help they each need.”
He toasted her with his almost empty whiskey, detouring to the credenza to re-fill both their glasses. “Then my only problem remains finding a CMO that can put up with them both!”
“Actually, I might be able to help you there.” A certain smugness was evident in her expression. His silently raised eyebrow encouraged her to continue. “You know I’m still teaching.” He nodded – Chip was understandably proud of his mother who was now an assistant principal. It had always surprised Nelson that she’d carried on in her chosen career after her marriage, when money wasn’t an issue. Now he realised he’d done her an injustice. “There’s a trauma surgeon in our local hospital. I’ve come to know him quite well as, whenever there’s an injury at the school, we take the kids there. He’s wonderful! He talks to the kids like they’re adults and treats the hyperactive parents like they’re children! It’s occurred to me on more than one occasion that he’s exactly what Lee needs.”
“I hardly think a pediatric….”
He’s the ER Consultant, Harry.
But he’s ex-Navy. That’s what got
us really talking when we first met. He
left the Navy and moved to
But I’ve seen him in action. We had a boy, eight years old, fall from the highest branch of an oak tree in the schoolyard.” Her complexion paled at what was obviously a fairly recent memory and she shuddered, closing her eyes and drawing in a deep breath before continuing. “I was the first on scene and, honest to God, I thought he was dead. He was so small…” She became choked and unable to continue. Nelson quickly crossed to her side and went down on one knee in front of her, gently massaging her arm and urging her to sip from the glass she held.
Somewhat restored, she continued sombrely. “Will arrived with the paramedics. He stabilised Craig on site and got him to the ER. He coaxed that child into staying alive, Harry. Worked on him all day and all night. Operated on him initially but wasn’t too proud to call in the experts when the boy’s need went beyond his own area of expertise. He handled the parents and all of us with a degree of courtesy and compassion I’ve never experienced from all the medical personnel I’ve come in contact with – and that’s been a lot over the years, with three of my own and numerous classes. He took the time to explain everything that was being done with Craig. And what struck me forcibly was that, even while he was giving comfort, he never gave out false hope, didn’t sugar coat the possible outcomes. But unconsciously he was willing us to believe - even as he was preparing us for the worst. He was there all that day and the night that followed.”
She shook her head in remembered wonderment coupled with anguish, the memories clearly still too fresh. “When Craig didn’t pull through, he was almost as destroyed as the parents – as any of us – but he was there comforting everyone, talking to each of us individually, gently bullying us into getting some rest and convincing us we’d all get through it. He called me, a day or so later, to ‘make sure I was coping’. I’ve never had that from any doctor that has ever treated any one of my kids. And I learned later that he’d phoned each one of us that had been there, offering his support and suggesting help for anyone who needed it. Some of us had a hard time coping with Craig’s death.”
Nelson knew she was counting her classes amongst ‘her kids’. So typical of Mama Morton. And, truth to tell, he was intrigued by the sound of her hero-doctor.
“This guy’s ex-Navy?”
“Our age, Harry.”
She sniffed delicately, composing herself, compartmentalising the
memories. “So he’s seen action. Not on subs, though. Mainly destroyers and
hospital ships. Until he decided to retire his commission to be with Eleanor when
her condition was diagnosed. They
Nelson’s lips twitched, despite the situation. He was very taken with the picture she’d painted of the ex-Navy ER consultant whose patient and relative handling skills were beyond compare to this savvy lady. If – and it was his fervent hope – Crane took the job offer on Seaview, he knew Baines wouldn’t command Lee’s respect, hadn’t been authoritative enough to ensure the boat’s captain received the treatment he needed once their mission was complete. Nelson ruminated silently while he absently sipped his whiskey – given the information on Lee’s phobia he’d just been privy to, it would take a rare medical professional to handle him but, more importantly, if Seaview were to complete her missions with her crew intact it would take a CMO with the convictions befitting his professional degrees to gain the respect of her command staff and officers to the extent that they would back the doc against the captain and exec when or if the conditions warranted.
“It’s going to take a very courageous individual to go up against the boat’s skipper, Claire.” His smile was very much in evidence now.
“I’ve known Will Jamieson for almost two years now, Harry. And I’ve thought several times that it would be … interesting, to say the least … to see how he’d handle Lee, sick or injured. It would take a lot to intimidate this guy! And I have the impression that he’d welcome a return to sea. He just needs a push in the right direction, to help him come to a decision.”
“Why don’t you give me his number and I’ll make a call, arrange to meet him. No commitment on either side.” Nelson warned. “We’ll take it a step at a time.”
She raised her glass to him now. “I know you’ll be impressed. His qualifications are second to none – top
of his graduating class from John Hopkins, Lt. Cmdr. in the Navy; he could have
picked out his desired position in a dozen different hospitals.
“And that’s assuming I’ll need a CMO. Lee may decide not to take my offer.”
She very deliberately pulled back her sleeve and checked her watch. “Oh, I’d safely say my number one son has had just enough time to persuade him.”
“Hell, you’d be an idiot not to!”
“Oh, I’m an idiot now?”
“You know you want to. What’s stopping you?” Chip was perplexed by his friend’s attitude. “I thought you’d jump at the chance to command her.”
“If it were only her….” The comment was uttered almost beneath his breath but the lightening quick XO, used to picking up on the slightest remarks from the crew, was on it immediately.
“So? You have a problem with the crew? Your own making, buddy.” Totally unsympathetic. “You didn’t exactly endear yourself with your impromptu arrival”
“Security sucked!” He flamed instantly, as the blond had known he would, recalling the ease at which he’d gained entry. “I shouldn’t have been able to get anywhere close to Seaview!”
“Firstly, the Institute is protected from outsiders getting onto property. Your credentials checked out; you were expected, the security detail had no reason to stop you. You were cleared to board the boat! The manner you chose to board was recorded on camera and you were apprehended before you reached the deck of the control room. We’ve been through this. The crew was not at fault. Get over it, Lee!” Morton’s tone brooked no quarter. “Secondly, measures have been taken to tighten up on access to the Sub Pen. You highlighted a gap - it’s been plugged. And believe me, we’re reviewing ALL our security just now.” The last statement was heartfelt – it being the XO’s responsibility to ensure that the workings of both the boat and the Institute were way beyond tight. It had been giving him headaches for most of the trip home – when he’d had time to think about his former roommate’s unorthodox technique – along with trying to smooth his captain’s passage with a still slightly ticked off crew.
Lee, tired now beyond belief, deigned not to argue this one any further. He’d had the expected lecture from Chip once the mission had been completed and, although he hadn’t admitted it to his friend, Chip’s words had stung. He’d come to regard the crew highly for their professionalism during the attacks on them. They’d performed as good as, if not better than, any crew he’d served with. Truth to tell, he was feeling a little discomfited with his subterfuge. He sighed heavily, signed the last paper in front of him with his distinctive scrawl and placed it on top of the stack to his right hand, stretching his long limbs with a wince he tried to hide as the torn muscles in his shoulder and chest protested, smothering a groan he knew from experience would instantly provoke his oldest friend and self-imposed big brother into ‘mother hen’ mode.
Chip’s eyes narrowed dangerously as he very deliberately capped his pen and placed it on the tabletop in precise alignment alongside the neatly stacked reports. “We’ll continue this conversation later. You done with these?” Indicating Lee’s completed files.
“Yeah, thanks.” As Chip gathered both sets of reports into his briefcase for delivery to the admiral’s secretary, Lee stood and reached for his uniform coat.
The single, flat word stopped him, as he was about to shrug into the khaki jacket. “Excuse me?”
“Enough, Lee. Your cabin, NOW. I want to see what you’ve done to yourself. This time.” The final two words were barely audible, but Lee heard them and a mutinous scowl marred his handsome features. Knowing by the tone and from previous experience, that Chip wouldn’t be put off, but not one to surrender gracefully, he gave the patented line he’d always used when medical issues became a consideration.
“I’m fine.” The words were ground out between clenched teeth as he took in the determined expression on the XO’s face while Chip indicated the aft hatch with a sweeping motion.
“It’s me or I haul your tail to
“Likewise!” Lee fired back, as he reluctantly turned and strode towards Officers’ Country. He’d be as wise to fall in with Chip – knowing of old that there was no way could he distract or dissuade him in his present mood.
“Couple of bruised ribs from the shaking we took after the explosion, like everyone else aboard.” Morton retorted dismissively as he followed his CO closely.
“And your diagnosis came by way of
Morton chose a dignified silence on that subject as he reached around Lee and pushed open the door of the captain’s cabin. “Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Your choice.”
He watched as Lee’s hands fisted at his sides and was just about to reach for the phone on the desk when he heard the exasperated sigh and saw Lee begin to undo the buttons of his shirt, shrugging out of it slowly. Chip whistled at the colourful bruising on his friend’s back and shoulders as Lee tossed the shirt onto the bunk. “Looks pretty painful, buddy.”
He moved around to Lee’s front and shook his head at the elongated black and purple discoloration down the left side of his torso, extending from just under Lee’s armpit to disappear into the waistband of his pants. “Ouch!”
Lee inhaled sharply as Chip gently probed his ribcage. “I don’t think anything’s broken but I’d lay a bet that you’ve cracked one or two. You’d be a lot more….”
“I am not going to your
“Not an option, buddy.” Chip shook his head forcefully, indicating
the phone on the desk. “There’s a direct
line to the admiral’s office which I will use if you don’t show some
sense here. I’m gonna hit
Lee’s teeth snapped together and Chip grinned evilly, knowing he’d won. “Don’t go away.”
As the exec left his cabin, Lee briefly thought about smacking his hand into the nearest bulkhead. Only the probability of breaking a couple of fingers and being ignominiously frog-marched to the Institute’s medical centre stopped him. Instead he closed his eyes tightly and counted to ten, trying to think up a suitable retaliation – preferably something outstandingly painful.
But he swiftly acknowledged that he wouldn’t have had the support he’d had aboard Seaview without Chip as his XO. Morton had taken on the chin his challenging eruption onto the boat, soothed ruffled feathers, barracked others, and seen to it that the temporary captain had received the respect he’d deserved – by rank alone, if nothing else – from a distinctly wary crew. More than that, he’d latterly convinced the crew that Crane was a shoe-in for permanent captain and they’d better get used to the idea – at least if he’d anything to do with it.
Lee shook his head – he’d patently lucked out. Most captains got an XO who tolerated them at best, ruled the crew by fear rather than respect, and thought they should be captain. He’d gotten an exec who had his, Lee Crane’s, best interests at heart, obviously had the loyalty of the crew, the respect of a three star admiral – and Lee’s undying gratitude for his wholehearted support. It was a measure of the persona of Chip Morton that he would downplay his own attributes – and his devastation at John Phillips’ murder – to ease Lee’s passage into his, perhaps, temporary role.
There was still a niggle of guilt that Chip had been forced to defend him to the crew – he shouldn’t have put his friend in that invidious position. Having weighed the options, he’d justified his decision by reckoning that Chip was well capable of overcoming the dent to his person once he, Lee, was gone. He should have known better. He’d been with Chip enough years to recognise that his oldest friend had a distinct agenda. And he grinned, chagrined.
Chip was back in mere minutes, inwardly relieved – although he didn’t allow it to show on his face – that Lee was still there, standing in the same tense pose as when Chip had left. The next few minutes were going to be tricky and he prayed he could strike the right balance. Push Lee too far and he’d better be ready to face the inevitable consequences.
Chip put his raided supplies – Doc and the corpsmen having left the boat already – on the CO’s desk and detoured into the small head to wash his hands. Drying them on a towel as he emerged, he pondered the best way to proceed.
“Why don’t you lie down on the bunk and let me rub this stuff on the bruising before I tape you up?” He held his breath at Lee’s instant thunderous frown but stoically stood his ground.
Knowing he’d get nowhere fast, Lee grudgingly conceded defeat and stalked to the bunk. His ribs reminded him that he couldn’t throw himself onto the coverlet in protest, as he felt like, so he carefully eased himself face down, pillowing his head in his arms and grimacing at the pull on the strained muscles.
Chip sat gingerly on the edge of the bunk, poured a generous measure of the glutinous gel onto his palm and warmed it between his hands before applying it gently onto the taut slender back. He was silent for a while as he massaged the muscle relaxant gently but thoroughly into Lee’s bruised flesh.
“Been a while since we did this.” Lee barely grunted in response, his shoulders initially tensing beneath the firm but soothing hands, gradually relaxing as the gel and the hands worked their magic. He was so tired.
“Don’t go to sleep on me yet.” Chip re-capped the gel and set it to one side. He could clearly see Lee’s exhaustion and concern battled with pride at his friend’s recent accomplishment. It hadn’t been easy for Lee, substituting for a well-loved captain at the last minute on a perilous mission crucial to the future of the world. But his friend had come through for them all and, despite his rather cavalier entry mode, had won the respect of – most of – Seaview’s crew. Oh, there were still one or two who resisted, namely Ski, the senior Rating aboard plus his stalwart following, and Chip couldn’t blame the Sonar operator who’d borne the brunt of Lee’s wrath in the form of a punch from Lee’s formidable right hook. “I need to wrap you and get you home.”
“Don’t think I have the energy.”
“Try! Come on, Lee, you know you’ll be more comfortable.” Chip cajoled, niggled and hassled the younger man into standing for his ministrations. Lee capitulated; inwardly glad for his friend’s caring and attention. He’d missed this and, truth to tell, after the wrap of his ribs he did feel better and could breathe more easily. Balling his shirt in his fists, as Chip washed his hands once again, he grinned affectionately at his friend’s back. Chip Morton was one of a kind, the best friend a plebe could have, the brother he’d always wanted and the XO he’d been sub-consciously looking for since he’d taken command of the Santa Fe - and revelled in once aboard Seaview.
He reared backwards almost palpably at the unwarranted thought. Where had that come from? Sure, he’d envisaged working with Chip but when had that wayward thought taken up residence? Chip wouldn’t want him as his permanent CO, having played the ‘big brother’ since their early days. Not that Lee had let him have it all his own way, mind you. But to have to play the role of exec to Lee’s captain? They’d never spoken of that. Lee had always envisaged that they’d be colleagues at similar rank – on the same side, attuned to each other’s modus operandi. But to have to pull rank on Chip?
Geesh! Could he do it? Hell, yes! Hadn’t he done it for the past two weeks! How would Chip react to it? Well, probably the same way he’d done for the past two weeks! It hadn’t gone unnoticed to Lee that Chip had been smoothing his way with the crew at every opportunity. He knew he’d blown any chance of crew co-operation when he’d punched that hole in security by way of his entrance to Seaview. And he’d been prepared to deal with that – brutally, if necessary.
It was more important that the crew focus on the mission at hand, succeed and get home safely, than on their temporary captain’s introduction to the boat. Not that, even with the antipathy he’d sensed, they hadn’t been positively the best-trained and most able crew he’d ever served with. It was with a sense of pride that he looked over at his friend who, as exec, was ultimately responsible for the crew’s readiness. He’d always known Chip was wasted behind a desk at the Pentagon.
As he reluctantly pulled on his now wrinkled shirt, Lee ran through the worries that were causing his head to pound. Absently running the middle finger of his right hand across his brow he was startled back to awareness by Chip’s amused comment.
Ingrained reaction caused a biting “No” to hiss through his lips before he retracted with the fairness that was so much part of him. “Maybe. Little one. Just tired.”
“I know, Lee.” Chip could read him better than any man alive. “But before we go face Mom and the admiral I need to know what you’re going to decide.”
Lee opened his mouth but again his friend forestalled him. “The past few weeks, this mission, proved to me that you are the skipper Seaview needs. John was a good commander, one of the best I’ve served with, in my limited experience at sea, and I’ll miss him.” Chip’s azure eyes stung. “But Seaview needs more than good, she deserves the best. And in my book, you’re it. I know it. Nelson knows it. Hell, the boat damn knows it! She’s never performed better than since you took command!”
Chip paced the small cabin, uncharacteristically – he usually left that up to his friend or his admiral but suddenly pacing seemed right (and he’d better get used to it!) “You know, and I know, that we’d never have pulled off this mission if you hadn’t been at the helm.”
“You’re a good commander, Chip.” Lee knew he wouldn’t have taken the decision to follow Wilson and Malone onto the ice if he hadn’t been supremely confident that Chip would get the boat out of the area before the bomb had blown. “But you sell yourself a lot short, pal. If I do decide to stay on, that has got to change. I’ll depend on you to be Acting Captain if I’m off boat – for whatever reason. And you know you’re more than capable – after all, you have her best interests at heart.” Lee grinned companionably, having had more than once been privy to the boat’s XO waxing lyrical about his ‘lady’.
Chip felt a frisson of unease wend its way down his back at Lee’s words; there was an unknown quantity lurking there, unspoken; however he’d probably have agreed to anything his friend proposed right then. But…. “Just tell me you’re not still taking on assignments for ONI?”
“I can’t tell you that, Chip.” Lee wouldn’t meet his friend’s eyes now.
“Dammit, Lee! You’re going to get yourself killed!” Chip’s tone was a mixture of exasperation and concern – with a good dash of fury thrown in. “Well, you’d better consider handing in your resignation, pal. Nelson won’t stand for you double jobbing! He needs a full time captain for this baby.”
“He knows I’ll have the best back-up. She’ll be more than OK in your hands, Chip. I’ve seen the way you work and the crew like and respect you – more than they do me right now!”
“Does that mean you’re going to take the job?”
“With your pushy attitude, are you going to accept any other decision, Mr. Morton? You’d probably deck me if I refused!” Lee’s eyes sparkled despite his exhaustion and he grinned as Chip grasped his forearm in pure delight, dampening his concern for now but meaning to revisit it until he got his way. He knew of old the value of systematic harassment – gentle, of course. And knew when to live to fight another day.
“Aye, aye, Sir! Shall we go tell the admiral he’s got a new CO for his boat?”
Eying the immaculately dressed and supremely pressed exec, while he fumbled into his tired khaki shirt, Lee sighed. “I’d feel a lot happier if I could request a fresh shirt before I meet Mom and the admiral. As it is, all my gear’s been taken topside.”
“Instant benefit.” Countered his new XO. “We’re the same collar size so I can loan you a fresh shirt.”
“Guess that has got to be a plus. And I’ve observed your creases are just that shade more than regulation, Mister!” Lee’s teasing brought a huge smile to the blond’s face.
“Guess you just got to be in the know, Skipper!” That last bespoke more than any other word could have to express the stricture and, at the same time ease of command protocol, that had instantly grown from the bond of friendship and brotherhood that existed between the two.
“Ain’t gonna be always easy, Chip.” Lee cautioned.
“Hell, Lee, if it was easy, it probably wouldn’t be worth it!” The exec, his exec, countered. “Tonight you need to rest and Mom’s here for the duration, so I guess we’re not going to escape a dinner or two with her and the admiral. Talking of which, I’d kinda forgotten….”
Lee groaned, not only from the effort of pulling on the shirt Chip had loaned him, and inserted his commander’s pin in the collar after he tied his tie. “I so do not want to know, Chip!”
“I’m kinda curious. Think we’re performing a rescue job or butting in?”
“Lee, admit it! You’re just as intrigued to know what they’ve been talking about for the past couple hours.”
The brunet scowled but a small grin finally sneaked in. “Probably us!”
“Commander Crane and Lt. Commander Morton are here, Sir.”
“Send them in, Angie.”
“Yes, Sir.” The secretary sounded a mite dazed.
Nelson placed his glass on his desk as he turned towards the door. “It seems my secretary has already succumbed!”
“What do you mean, Harry?” Claire watched as he attempted to control the amusement that threatened to take over his expressive features.
“Oh, your son has the majority of the secretarial staff swooning in his wake when the boat’s in port, Claire. Surely you know? Personnel breathe a sigh of relief when Seaview departs – only then can they get any real work out of the girls. Now it seems even my own secretary – and I thought she was immune – has joined the ranks.”
“Ah, yes! Add Lee to the mix and….” She broke off, her own smile dropping as the door opened and two immaculately attired officers, both tall, one dark, one fair, entered and immediately snapped to attention. “Oh, my.” She barely breathed. They were magnificent! Sorry, Harry, but efficiency ratings in the steno pool are about to drop – through the floor!
Nelson returned the salute. “Captain. Commander.” Both men eased into parade rest at his nod then, almost as one, turned to acknowledge the lady present. Identical grins broke out on their faces. “Ma’am. Mom. With your permission, Admiral?” Chip allowed his new CO to speak for them both. Nelson’s wry grin broke the formality and both men swooped on the tall blonde.
Hauled into their loving arms, her eyes filled with tears as she contemplated the worn looks on both their beloved faces. Her heart clenched in silent protest as she thought of the worrisome days she knew were in her future, with both her boys on the giant nuclear sub. Enough, Claire; their choices, their lives, their dream. Let them live it and enjoy it.
Nelson caught the sparkle of emotion in the azure eyes he was used to seeing in a more familiar masculine setting. “Gentlemen, I take it the boat is safely put to bed?”
“Aye, sir.” Seaview’s XO glanced briefly at his friend and new CO before speaking but saw that Crane was content to allow him to answer. “All the reports are with Angie – Ms. Newman, sir.”
“Thank you, Commander. And now may I suggest that you both get some much deserved rest. Captain Crane, I know Angie has booked a hotel room for you. Perhaps you’d be good enough to join me for breakfast tomorrow.”
It was more order than request and both men knew Nelson would be seeking an answer to the offer he’d proposed. Chip nodded encouragement to his friend. No point postponing the inevitable.
Lee cleared his throat. “Actually, Admiral, Chip offered me a bed at his place so I asked Ms. Newman to cancel the room she’d reserved.”
Nelson glanced towards Claire; he’d assumed she’d be staying with her son.
“Don’t look at me, Harry. I booked myself into a five star hotel. No way I’m cleaning out rotting refrigerators or vacuuming unaired apartments while I’m here! I got sense long ago. Besides, the boys are tired and, if I’m not mistaken, sore and in definite need of eight hours un-interrupted sleep. If your very efficient secretary can organise me a cab, I’ll take myself off and see you two,” directed at her now sheepish sons, “at your place, Chip, tomorrow afternoon.”
“I’m sure we can arrange a staff car for you, Claire.” Obviously once a mother….
Her gaze swept the two young officers maternally, lingering on the brunet. “Well? Have you anything you want to share with us, Lee? Chip, haven’t you harassed him sufficiently yet?”
“Uh, Claire!” Nelson was uncomfortable with her pushiness but she dismissed his concerns without qualm.
“Nonsense, Harry. I know them too well. And Lee’s wearing Chip’s shirt. Fait accompli!”
Two sets of jaws dropped simultaneously as Chip groaned. “Mom!!”
“Well?” She was giving no quarter.
With a sidelong glance at his friend, and at Chip’s nod of re-assurance, Lee squared off to the three star flag officer. “Sir, I’d be honoured to accept permanent captaincy of the Seaview. If it’s still on offer, sir.”
He held his breath, awaiting the response, as did Chip – and Claire.
Bright blue eyes connected to amber as Nelson reached out his hand, his voice husky. “Welcome aboard, lad.”
As the two men - one tall, dark and lean of build, the other shorter, thicker set and russet haired - shook hands, the Mortons grinned companionably and in complete understanding. A son had found his father and a father the son he’d not known he was lacking – even if none but the woman present recognised the moment as such.
“What’s wrong, Chip?” Crane’s concerned tone brought a fiery blush to the blond’s fair complexion as Chip belatedly realised he’d emoted aloud.
“Uh, nothing, Lee, just a stray thought.”
“Must be something to make you go red like that.” Payback time!
Never one to resist a challenge Morton, on this occasion, decided to give his new CO a freebie – just this once.
“Trust me, you don’t want to know, Lee.”
Having put up with his friend’s mother-henning, and sometimes-oblique sense of humour, for the past several hours Lee wasn’t ready to let it drop. “We’re among friends, Chip.” He insisted.
A wholly devilish grin overtook the XO’s Nordic features. “Oh, I was just wondering how the crew will cope with calling you the ‘Old Man.’ And would that make you, Sir, the ‘OOM?’”
Lee instantly wanted to clobber him!
The admiral looked momentarily nonplussed and Chip tensed, wondering briefly if he’d overstepped the mark, then sighed silently with relief as Nelson burst into a guffaw of delighted laughter. “I can see things are about to change around here – radically. Out, all of you. NOW! Gentlemen, I will see you both here at 0800 tomorrow. Claire, enjoy your day and we will be pleased to take you to dinner tomorrow evening. Perhaps you’ll have instilled some decorum into these reprobates before then!”
“If I haven’t managed yet, Harry, I wouldn’t hold your breath! You’re on your own now, my dear, dear friend.”
“Oscar Brothers, Claire?”
“Oh, I think so, Harry! I really, really think so.”