Thanks to Sue for her excellent suggestions, to the Friday Night Chat ladies for letting me bounce bits off of them and for Kim’s continued belief in me. I don’t mean to leave anybody out, so this is dedicated to those who need a hero once in a while. In my timeline, this story takes place after Doppelganger and Company of Shadows and before Eavesdropper and World on Fire.
Good Run of Bad Luck
Chip Morton could not stifle the groan as he ran his fingers through his short blond hair, messing his normally impeccable hairstyle. The new sonar software was nowhere near finished and until he went through every line of code personally, he wasn’t about to let it come within a hundred feet of Seaview. Number one, Lee would kill him if a virus made its way into the system, and number two, Chip swore he would take a flying leap off Seaview’s conning tower if he let something slip by. Since he didn’t feel like taking a flying leap today, he opted to read code till his eyes crossed.
He glanced up at the clock, surprised at the time. He had come in early, just after 0500, giving up a perfectly nice Saturday to spent time with the only lady in his life at the moment. It was already past 1000 and he was barely a quarter of the way into the program. Truth be known, it would take days to go over the whole thing. He simply didn’t trust anyone else with Seaview’s software.
A quick knock at the door pulled Chip’s attention from the computer screen. He looked up to see the dark haired figure of his CO and best friend, Lee Crane, leaning against the door, arms crossed over his chest.
“You look like you’re having fun,” Lee said with a smirk, festooned in his khaki armor.
“Oodles and oodles. What the heck are you doing, in uniform, on a Saturday? I thought you were taking the day off. Something about little white balls and holes.”
Lee snorted. “Pull up NEXRAD1 and tell me what you see.”
With a raised eyebrow, Chip did as ordered, his long fingers clicking across the keyboard.
“Impressive. Most Impressive,” Chip said, imitating the deep tones of a popular science fiction villain. “Moving fast, too” Lee moved to stand behind Morton. A massive bank of greens, yellows, and reds colored the computer screen, moving quickly from the coast.
Chip glossed over the forecast for the day. Rain, rain and more rain. Glancing out the window, Morton saw the clouds were making their claim on the late summer sky.
Lee hitched a hip onto the edge of Chip’s desk, tapping the stone of his ring against the desktop. “Once I saw that, I figured a day on the course would be a waste of time. I thought I could get more done if I came in and got a start on the prep work for the next run.”
Chip could not stop the eye roll. “Lee, we don’t head out for another three weeks. We have plenty of time to get ready. I think you’re just bored.”
Lee got to his feet and roamed the office, not really pacing, just unable to sit still.
“What gives you that idea? I can keep busy.”
Morton snorted as he attacked the keyboard in a frenzy of clicking. “Well, let’s see, this is Saturday--day four of Wendy’s being gone off on this mysterious errand of hers. Ergo, she’s not home, ergo, she’s not at your house…” Chip trailed off with a gleam in his eye as he watched his best friend fidget.
“All right, you made your point. Maybe I’m a little bored. I can’t help it, I’ve kind of gotten used to her being around. What about Serena? She’s out of town too.”
“She actually came back this morning, but she’s not camping out at my house when I’m home.” An eye-roll accompanied the flippant comment.
Lee crossed his arms over the top of Chip’s monitor and rested his chin on his arms. Leave it to Chip to know exactly were Serena was. “And why is that, Mister Chicken, I mean Morton?”
“Come on Lee. We’ve talked about this. I’m not going to push where I’m not wanted.”
This time is was Lee’s turn to roll his eyes. Chip was such a gentleman sometimes it made the brunet grind his teeth in frustration. Chip had more than a passing interest in the institute’s marine archaeologist, but as of yet, he’d never acted on the impulse to ask her out. The fact that Serena Harrison was also the daughter of Admiral Harriman Nelson, who happened to be their boss, probably played no small part in his reluctance to ask the lady in question for a date. It also didn’t help that somewhere along the line Chip had gotten the impression that Serena wouldn’t give him the time of day.
Lee knew better. While very sick at the time, with her defenses down, Serena had admitted to Lee that she thought Chip was too good for her and, outside of just being nice, he’d never notice her2. Such a notion was likely to get the stuffing kicked out of her if her father ever caught wind.
“Maybe you should just come out and ask her, Chip. What’s she going to say? No? At least you’ll know for sure then.”
“She avoids me like I was a week old liverwurst sandwich. I can take a hint. She just wants to be friends.”
Lee sighed, not sure what to say. He watched as Chip locked his emotions down, retreating behind the mask of professionalism that he wore to cover the truly deep feelings Lee knew he had.
“Maybe if you…” Lee began only to have the blond shake his head.
“Don’t. I know you mean well, but this is one of those things you can’t fix. Just…just leave it alone. Please,” Chip said.
Reluctantly, Lee backed down. He wasn’t sure how to proceed in this. There had to be a way to get Serena to see that Chip had feelings for her, just as there had to be a subtle way of showing Chip that Serena needed him.
Lee was about to say something else when a low growl rumbled through the room. For a second, Lee thought it was thunder until he saw the sheepish grin on Chip’s face.
Lee fixed his best friend with a look. “Long time, no eat?”
“Breakfast was a few hours ago. You game for an early lunch?”
Lee shrugged. “Since you’re buying, why not?” he teased as Chip stuck out his tongue. Morton locked his computer down and got up as his stomach did another growl.
Lee couldn’t resist. “So, it sounds like we’re doing buffet. It’s the only thing I can think of that will top off your bottomless pit.”
Lee got an elbow in his rubs for his suggestion.
“Just drive, will ya? And let’s get there in one piece?”
“Relax, pal. You’re with me.”
Chip rolled his blue eyes, a habit he seemed to indulge in more often when he was in Lee’s company, and fell into step beside his friend. “Yeah, I know. That’s what worries me.”
Serena Leigh Harrison took one look at her desk and wished she had listened to Wendy.
Her “in-box” was literally overflowing, over the rim of the basket and on to the top of the desk. There was a three-inch stack of manila folders on her desk that wasn't there when she left. Her call box was full of pink message slips. Wendy had told her to take another day off and get some rest, but Serena had argued, saying she wasn't getting paid to lie around. So here she was, on a Saturday morning, trying to catch up on nearly three weeks worth of backlog. She was going to seriously have to consider her father's suggestion and get an assistant at some point.
With a sigh that came from the bottom of her shoes, Serena dropped her briefcase off on the desk. The purse went into the empty bottom drawer of the file cabinet. She dropped down into her chair and hit the monitor switch on the computer. The screen flared to life, blinked twice, then the system went dark.
What the hell? Serena wondered to herself, staring at the blank screen. She reached down under the desk and hit the reset button on the CPU. She waited. Nothing happened. Wonderful. Freaking wonderful.
“For once I dressed for setting on my rear, not crawling around in the silt and muck,” the redhead said to the empty room. She stood up, looking down at herself, taking in the light green skirt, white silk blouse, matching green jacket and the high heel shoes Wendy had talked her into buying. She kicked off the shoes and dropped to her knees by the desk, then crawled under it to inspect the wiring.
After about five minutes of looking, Serena could find nothing wrong with the system's wiring. She started to rise up from the floor when the fabric of her stocking caught on a snag on the edge of the antique maple desk. She ended up with a five-inch long run in the leg of her hose.
Cursing under her breath, Serena jammed her feet back into her shoes and snatched up the phone. She dialed up I.T. support but then realized her phone was dead. No dial tone. With another un-lady like snort she dropped the receiver in its cradle and contemplated her next action. Cell phone. She'd call I.T. from her cell phone.
Only her cell phone was in the car, re-charging. She'd forget to grab it on her way in. This was quickly turning out to be not her day. Frowning, Serena gathered up a couple of folders from the stack on her desk and headed out the door. She would drop by the I.T. department and put in a repair ticket, then double back and head for the lab. She could use the computer down there until I.T. got her office system back up and running.
She was half way across the breezeway separating the Physical Science building from the Administration building when the heel of her left shoe got hung on a crack in the sidewalk. With a snap, the heel broke off, the stack of papers in her grip went flying and Serena took a fall, skinning the palms of her hands as she caught herself against the pavement.
A gentle wind caught the dropped papers and scattered them across the breezeway. Biting back a vicious curse that she was sure her father wouldn't approve of, she peeled off the other shoe and in her stockinged feet, she began chasing down her wayward papers.
It took her nearly ten minutes to retrieve the scattered papers. By now the clouds were building and the sky was growing darker. The rain promised in the morning forecast was fast moving in.
That's when Serena remembered her thumb drive was still in her car, along with her cell phone. The cell phone she could live without but she needed the thumb drive. It wasn't that far to the parking lot and she really wanted to download the information she had collected in Florida. If she was lucky, she could also get her umbrella before the rain started. With her mangled papers tucked under one arm, her shoes in the other hand, Serena headed for the parking lot.
She made it to her car and fished out the keys from her jacket pocket. Once the car was unlocked, she dropped the keys in the front seat. The papers landed with a soft thump on top of the keys. After finding the thumb drive in the glove compartment, she gathered up the papers, hit the door locks and slammed the door shut with a twist of her hip.
Umbrella. She forgot the umbrella. Already the hood of the car was sprinkled with fat raindrops. She reached into her pocket for the keys and stopped. The keys to her townhouse and car as well as her cell phone lay in the front seat of her car. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. Simple. She would call security once she got up to the I.T. department and have someone unlock her car door. Serena turned and started back up the hill to the shelter of the buildings.
Half way there, the sky opened up and buckets of rain began pouring down. What is it with me and the freaking rain? she wondered and darted across the grass, only to have her right foot slip out from under her. She fell flat on her backside, wrenching her already weaker right knee in the process. The mud soaked into her skirt, jacket and blouse completely ruining all three.
Heaving to her feet, Serena gave up all pretenses of trying to stay dry and limped up the hill, soaking wet and mud covered. Her long auburn hair had come loose from the combs holding it back and it hung in disheveled strings around her face. At least nobody's around to see me like this, she thought to herself as she headed back toward her office. She kept a few changes of clothes there so she could do heavy work in the lab. She just cleared the top hill when two figures came out of the Administration Building. With a groan she recognized the figures as the last two people on the planet she wanted to deal with right now.
Lee and Chip didn't see her at first, caught up in their own conversation. Someone darted across the breezeway and both men looked up to see Serena Harrison, soaking wet, mud-covered and bare-footed, heading for the Physical Sciences building.
“Hey Serena, are you okay?” Lee asked as he and Chip jogged down the breezeway, wondering what on earth the archaeologist had been into. It wasn’t uncommon to find her in mud up to her knees and coated in a layer of grime, but not barefoot and not while wearing a skirt. Even the very hands-on marine archaeologist has limits. Serena stopped dead in her tracks then slowly turned and pinned the two officers with a disgusted, green-eyed gaze.
“Do I look okay?” she snarled with a pair of shoes in one hand and a muddy mess of folders in the other. Without any further words, Serena whirled and limped off into the building. Chip and Lee stood there, looking puzzled and confused.
“Did we say something wrong?” Chip asked, watching the door swing shut. Lee shrugged.
“I don't get women. Just when you think you understand them, they throw a curve ball at you and you realize you don't know anything.”
“Ain't that the truth,” Chip replied with a puzzled look. He still wondered if she was okay. “If we hadn't said something, she’d have said we were insensitive. We ask if she's okay and we get growled at. I think I'll go after her and apologize.”
“She looks madder than a Great White with a toothache. I'd leave her alone. She’s apt to take your head off. Then who’s gonna keep the crew in line?” Lee advised, shaking his head to punctuate his point.
But Chip wasn't ready to give up. Somewhere along the line he was going to have to get the courage up to confront his feelings about Serena. Lee was right, maybe if he went and checked on her, he could show her his intentions were honorable. Yeah, that's what he would do.
“You’ll just have to get creative. I'll catch up with you later,” Chip said and pulled open the door.
“Alright, nice knowing ya. Any famous last words for Wen? Can I have your stereo?”
“Ha-ha,” Chip's voice faded as he disappeared into the building. With a grin on his face, Lee wandered off, wondering how much longer those two were going to keep this little dance going.
Serena dropped the soggy bundle of papers on her desk with a wet splat. The shoes—the shoes she bought on Wendy’s advice thinking that somebody might notice her if she had an extra inch of height—she dropped into the garbage can by her desk. No sense in keeping them now. It was a lost cause anyway. She pulled open the bottom drawer of her cabinet to dig out her spare dry clothes and found herself staring at her purse. And nothing else. Then she remembered. She had been in Med Bay, under observation after suffering from heat stroke when a fruit bat impersonating Lee had kidnapped her and stuffed her into the trunk of Lee’s car3. When she had finally been released she had changed into the clothes she kept in her office so she could go home. She hadn’t had the chance to bring back a new set since she had left for the admiral's cabin right after that. Then there was the lovely extended stay in Sickbay. When she was deemed well enough, she'd taken off for Florida.
Damn. That was it. The absolute last straw. She snatched her purse up and slung it over one shoulder, then picked up her briefcase. On impulse she grabbed a handful of dry folders from the stack on her desk and jammed them into her briefcase. If she couldn’t work here, the least she could do was work from home. Maybe the day wouldn’t be a total washout. Without a backward glance, she padded out of her office and back down the hall, leaving a trail of muddy footprints behind her.
She avoided elevators on principle, instead choosing to head for the stairs. She rounded the corner and ran right into six feet of blond Morton male. She plowed right into him, splattering his pristine khaki uniform with mud. The briefcase hit the floor with a clatter and her purse dropped off her shoulder with thud.
“Chip, oh, I'm so sorry, this just isn't my day, I swear, I'm not trying to run you over. I guess I'm just in a hurry to get out of here before something else happens. I’ve had nothing but one problem after the other,” Serena gushed, overtaken by the same nervousness she always felt whenever she was alone with him. She managed just fine when there were other people around but if he was alone, then she couldn’t seem to stop babbling. Serena felt the heat of embarrassment climbing up her neck. Quickly, she snapped her jaws shut.
“Easy, it's okay. I’m washable. I just wanted to check on you and see if you needed anything. You seemed kind of frazzled downstairs,” Chip said, cranking up the wattage on the smile. He bent down and picked up her briefcase, but didn’t hand it back to her right away.
Serena wanted to be mad. He followed up to her office? She looked like she went ten rounds with a warthog! But then he smiled and she felt her anger slipping away. He was just checking on her, after all. Wendy would have done the same thing if she were here. The Mortons were like that.
“A towel, maybe? I was on my way back from my car when I kinda fell. I thought I had clean clothes stashed in my office, but I don't and I can't spent the rest of the day like this, so I'm giving up. The last thing I need is another round of pneumonia. Wendy told me to stay home. I should have listened to her,” she babbled. Why can’t I sound like an adult, not a twelve-year old?
“I can walk you to your car, if you like?”
Serena looked up at him and blinked. She had forgotten her keys were locked in her car still. “You don’t have to do that,” she said evasively. The last thing she needed was for him to know she’d locked her keys in her car. Chip was going to think she was a ditz, on top of being a klutz. She reached out for her case, but Chip eased it just out of her reach.
“It’s not a problem, really,” he insisted, his crystal blue eyes sincere.
“You don’t have to. There’s really not point in us both getting soaking wet. I’m sure you have executive officer type stuff that needs to be done,” Serena replied, mentally wincing at how lame the excuse sounded.
“I’ve got an umbrella in my office. Won’t take five minutes to walk down and get it. I might even have a towel you can dry off a bit with.”
“I locked my keys in my car.”
“Beg pardon?” Chip asked, turning his head sideways, a puzzled expression on his face.
“What part of 'I locked my keys in my car' did you not understand?” Serena snapped, slowly reaching the end of her patience. Then she felt bad for snapping at the poor man. He was only trying to be nice and here she was biting his head off. What ungrateful wench she was turning out to be. She took a deep breath and tried to settle her shattered nerves. She tried to cover her outburst by picking up the fallen purse and pulling the strap over her shoulder.
Chip waved a hand dismissively. “Calm down, we’ll call Security and they’ll get your car unlocked. If nothing else, we can get Lee to jimmy the lock for you. In the meantime, you come down to my office. I know I've got some towels down there and you can dry off before you go home.” Chip pulled his cell from his back pocket and punched up a few numbers. With one finger crooked in a 'follow me gesture', Chip headed down the stairs. Feeling like a lost kitten trailing behind someone with a can of tuna, Serena followed. She really had no choice, since Chip still had her briefcase. Eventually, Chip stuck the phone back into his pocket.
“Taken care of. Come on, let’s swing by my office, I might have a blanket I can loan you.”
Wordlessly, Serena followed Chip up to his second story office in the Administration Building. His office was neat and well furnished, with comfortable chairs and a cozy couch on one corner, exactly what she expected of the super-organized executive officer. I’ll bet Chip never forgot his cell phone in his car on a rainy day, or locked his keys in the car for that matter. He has to think I’m the biggest ditz on the west coast.
“Be right back, don't run off,” he said, and disappeared behind another set of doors. Serena wrapped her arms around herself, getting chilled in the air-conditioned office. Her right knee ached from the fall she had taken and her palms still stung. She was soggy and dripping mud and water all over Chip's carpet. In short, she was miserable and embarrassed. If there was even the remotest chance Chip was going to look at her before, she had most assuredly blown her chance out of the water, to borrow a phrase. She looked like a wet cat, her hair hanging limp and sodden, her bangs plastered to her forehead, and what little bit of make up she wore was completely gone, washed off in the downpour. As if to emphasize her miserable state, a glob of mud dripped of the edge of her once spring green skirt, landing with a cold, wet ‘splat’ onto the floor. Serena closed her eyes, praying the maybe the floor would just open up and she’s disappear so she wouldn’t have to face Lieutenant Commander Charles Morton.
No such luck. Chip emerged from the back, a large towel in one hand and a gray blanket in the other. The towel he handed to Serena and the blanket he unfolded and draped across her shoulders. She snuggled into the warmth as Chip's hands lingered on her shoulders for a second before pulling away. She wrapped her long auburn hair in the towel, trying to wring out what seemed like gallons of water.
Chip smiled down at her again. “Better?” he asked.
Serena couldn't help returning his hundred-watt smile. What she wouldn't give to see him smile at her like that all the time. “Much better now, thank you.”
“Just doing my job. Come on, I’ll walk you to your car.” Chip had an umbrella in one hand and he was still gallantly carrying her briefcase. Serena had no choice but to comply. She followed him down the hall to the stairwell and he headed down the first flight of stairs, She couldn’t help but watch how the muscles in his broad back shifted as he moved, not to mention how well his khaki trousers seemed to fit. Serena was watching Chip and not watching where she put her feet.
The fates intervened. Serena's good run of bad luck wasn't done with her yet. Her weaker right leg and the wrenched knee were unable to handle her weight as she stepped onto the first step heading down. Her muddy foot slid on the already slick tile step and she went tumbling down the stairs. Chip dropped the umbrella and briefcase as he made a grab for her. His hands closed around empty air as Serena fell down the twelve steps to the first landing. She rolled and Chip heard a thud as her head connected solidly with the wall.
“Serena! Are you okay?” In an instant, Chip was on his knees by her side as she looked up at him with crossed green eyes.
At first all Serena could see were stars as they danced and sparkled before her eyes. It took her a second to get her vision back. Slowly her eyes uncrossed and then she closed them, trying to fend off the wicked pounding that had started up in the back of her head. Well if Chip didn’t think she was a klutz before, this certainly proved it.
In a voice close to a whimper, she whispered, “Can this day get any worse? I just want to go home before something falls on me or I break something.”
Chip breathed a sigh of relief. If she was making weak jokes she couldn't be hurt too bad. He rose to his feet and got one arm around her shoulders. “Come on, do you think you can stand?’
“I think so,” she said, letting Chip help her to her feet. She felt like a complete, blundering idiot. Of all days for the best looking guy in town to pay any attention to her, it would be the day she looked like she'd been wrestling alligators. Probably felt sorry for her, a poor klutzy girl can’t even walk down stairs without falling over her own two feet. Well, she didn’t need his sympathy—she could walk on her two feet, thank you very much!
The second she put her full weight on her left foot, she crumpled as a stabbing pain zinged through her ankle. Chip caught her around the waist as she staggered.
“Easy there. Did you twist your ankle or something?” Chip asked, the concern in his voice clear if only Serena had been listening. The pounding of her head was a distraction that kept her from focusing on the handsome blond man at her side.
The very last thing she wanted was to admit that her foot felt like somebody had rammed a knife through it. She was not some Hollywood damsel in distress! Gritting her teeth, she shook her head, her damp auburn locks falling into her eyes. With a distracted hand, she tried to hook her hair behind her ears.
“I’m fine. I just want to go home,” she said, trying to gather up was left of her shattered pride. She tried to take another step and again nearly fell. Serena stumbled against the wall, bracing herself with one hand. When she did, pain crawled up her arm, emanating from her wrist. She balled her fingers into a tight fist against the pain and blinked back hot tears of agony and frustrations. She would not cry in front of Chip, she would not. All she needed was to prove to him she was some emotional ditz who couldn’t walk across the floor without help and cried at the drop of a hat.
“I think you might have done something to your ankle. Maybe you should see a doctor.”
Serena did her best to keep from growling at the man. Was he so dense he couldn’t see she just wanted to go home?
“I don’t need a doctor,” she ground out, “I just need to go home.”
Chip pinned her with a crystal blue-eyed gaze.
“Serena, you just took a nasty spill down twelve steps, you probably don't need to be driving,” he said.
Serena took a deep long breath, not at all used to dealing with someone this stubborn. Wendy was bad, but she would have given in at this point and just taken her home. Chip seemed to be made of sterner stuff than his sister. Must come from dealing with Lee all these years.
“I just need to go home and put some ice on it. I’ll be fine in the morning,” she said and stubbornly tried to walk. She caught herself on the wall and this time a whimper of pain escaped her lips.
Without warning, Serena felt herself lifted up off the ground as Chip picked her up in his arms.
“What are you doing? Put me down! You only just healed up from two gun shot wounds4. I don’t need you to carry me,” she protested as Chip carried her back up the stairs to his office.
“I’m fine. Doc completely cleared me weeks ago. You can’t walk on that foot, that much is obvious. Just humor me.”
Serena found herself carried back down the hall to Chip’s office. She was very carefully deposited on the couch. With those long delicate fingers of his, Chip held Serena's foot gently, yet firmly while he examined the already swelling joint. With a frown he looked up at the marine archaeologist.
“You've definitely twisted or torn something. You probably shouldn't put any weight on it right now. You need to have Jamie take look at it,” he said, looking up into Serena's green eyes. His frown deepened as he looked closer into her eyes. He held up a finger, drawing it across Serena's field of vision. Automatically, her eyes tracked the movement or tried to, at any rate. Her green eyes were slow to track his finger and Chip frowned at the implication.
“You're not tracking well. Does your head hurt?”
Like Ringo Starr has added my head to his drum kit. With a sigh, she nodded. Only that's when things started spinning. She closed her eyes and dropped her head forward. She felt Chip's hand on the back of her head, gently probing the goose egg that was getting bigger by the moment.
“You hit your head on the base board. No wonder you’re dizzy. Come on, I need to get you to Med Bay.”
“I don't wanna go to Med Bay,” she sulked sounding more like a moody teenager than a grown woman. Without realizing it, Serena had cradled her right arm against her chest.
Chip refused to let it go. Why is she being so stubborn? Anybody can see she’s hurting. Why doesn’t she just let me help her? “You need to have that ankle looked at and I think you have more than a lump on your head. Obviously you've done something to your arm.”
“Can't you just drive me home?” Serena asked pathetically. She didn't want a doctor, and she didn't want to go to Med Bay. Jamieson had already had her as patient more times this year than she cared to count. She just wanted to go home and sleep until Chip forgot what a monumental klutz she was. Serena figured ten years ought to be enough.
But Chip Morton wasn't backing down. Years of bullying and threatening Lee simply meant that Serena Harrison didn't stand a chance. He rose up to his full height of six feet, crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at the smaller woman. Serena blinked and tried to look pathetic. She batted wide green eyes up at him.
“You are going to Med Bay.” His tone clearly broke no argument.
“Do I have to?”
Chip rolled his eyes skyward. Why is she being so hardheaded about this? At least I could talk sense into Lee. “You're going to Med Bay, I out rank you, so don't argue. You need a doctor.”
“I'm not Navy, how do you out rank me?” Serena squeaked, but Chip wasn't listening. In one quick motion Chip lifted Serena off the couch. The archaeologist naturally protested.
“Chip, put me down, I can manage,” she grumbled, the whole time hanging on to the blond officer as the sudden movement incited another wave of dizziness.
Chip was not persuaded. “You can't walk on that foot, so I'm taking you to Med Bay. Don't argue with me, that's an order,” he replied as he headed down the hall.
“My briefcase and my stuff . . .” she stuttered, at this point more surprised than angry.
“When we get to Med Bay, I'll call Security and have somebody come back up for them. Just relax. I've got you.”
It was pointless to argue at this stage. Serena simply gave in, letting Chip carry her to the elevator. She laid her pounding head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. She said nothing as Chip elbowed the buttons and in a few minutes the two were on the ground floor. As Chip carried her out the building and down to Med Bay, she became aware of his muscles as they shifted and bunched under his long sleeved khaki shirt. Shoulder muscles, tight chest muscles, corded neck muscles, and of course, biceps. Her mind flashed back to her first cruise aboard Seaview. Serena could never forget following Lee into Chip’s cabin that day, to find Chip half dressed, wearing only a towel. She could still remember the well-toned biceps of his upper arms, the broad chest, the way his waist tapered down to his hips, his long, powerful legs5 . . .
Harrison snapped her eyes open, to find Chip's crystal blue eyes looking down into hers. “You okay? You got kinda of quiet on me,” he said, the deep timbre of his voice rolling over her senses. What's wrong with you? Get a grip for crying out loud! He's just being polite.
“I guess I'm just a little dizzy,” she replied honestly.
Chip shouldered the Med Bay doors open and just happen to catch William Jamieson at the Administration desk.
“Chip? What happened . . .Serena?” Jamie said, eyes darting from one to the other, clearly not expecting this turn of events. Will suppressed a sigh. Actually, having Serena as a patient was getting to be a habit these days. She had a long way to go before she could match the exploits of her escort or his commanding officer, but she was beginning to get something of a reputation as someone who did not care for Med Bay.
“She's had a rough day. Twisted ankle, a possible sprained wrist, and she took a whack on the back of her head. Think you could take a look at her?” Chip explained.
“The first thing we need to do is get her out of those wet clothes. I think she’s had enough pneumonia for a while. Nancy, would you give her a hand?” Jamieson spoke to a nurse behind the counter and the older woman nodded with a sympathetic look at the marine archaeologist.
The next few minutes found Serena in an exam room, while Nancy scrounged up some dry clothes. Granted they were hospital scrubs and way too big, but at least they were dry and she could start to get warm again. She had to roll the long sleeves of the top up to her elbows, and then cuff the bottoms up to her ankles. Serena felt like somebody's kid sister, given clothes to grow into. With a borrowed comb, she tried to work the knots out of her tangled hair. Nancy hung around to give her hand with that as well, even finding a fat rubber band she could pull her damp hair back with.
Settled on an exam table with Chip hovering outside the door, Serena let Jamieson work his doctor skills, shining a light into her eyes, and asking all the standard, annoying questions.
“I notice you're not tracking well. Do you have a headache? ”
“A little,” she admitted. Jamieson gave her a look like she'd been caught breaking curfew.
“A little, my foot. You know you probably have a mild, very mild concussion?” The question was asked in an almost chilly manner as Jamieson accepted the x-rays from a technician. He jammed them up on the light board and took a hard look at them. “You are very lucky, Serena. It’s not broken, but that ankle is badly twisted. Chip called it right, you also have a sprained wrist.”
Serena heaved another sigh. “You're kidding? You make it sound like I rolled down the side of a mountain. All I did was roll down twelve steps.”
Jamieson wasn't impressed. “Well, it was twelve steps too many and I never joke about twisted and sprained joints. I'm going to wrap both that foot and wrist. I don't want you to put any weight on your ankle and if possible, avoid using the wrist. As far as that concussion, I've seen your medical records, I should not have to tell you what I expect from you.”
“Go home, get some rest, have somebody wake me up every few hours. I'm familiar with the routine.” Her fingers inched toward her throat for the necklace that was no longer there. Mason had taken it from her 6 and after the whole mess was over, it had simply never turned up. Serena so far hadn’t been able to break the habit of pulling the pendent back and forth along the chain.
“You have somebody who can keep an eye on you?”
“I, uh, well . . .” Serena stuttered. Wendy was out of town, on some mysterious errand she refused to discuss with anyone and the admiral was in series of meetings in Bangor, Washington, working out the final details of some project he’d been focused on for the last few months. His illness 7 had thrown the whole project behind several weeks and he was anxious to wrap things up. Chip came though the door and leaned against the frame, crossing his arms over his chest. He pinned her with another of those frosty looks.
“I can keep an eye on her until Wendy gets back.” Chip said with conviction.
“Chip, that's absurd, I can't ask you to do that,” Serena protested, only to have Jamieson raise a hand, signaling her silence. Serena acquiesced.
“Doctor Harrison, you have a mild concussion, a badly twisted ankle and a sprained wrist. You can't drive and I refuse to let you go home on your own. I suggest you accept the commander's offer, else you're looking at an overnight stay here in Med Bay and I report this to the admiral.”
If this day wasn’t bad enough, now Jamie was threatening to tell the admiral that his resident marine archaeologist and only daughter was a first class klutz. Serena wasn’t sure if this day could get much worse.
“I'm not staying in Med Bay,” the redhead mumbled under her breath.
“Then I take it you're accepting Mister Morton's offer?” Jamieson asked.
Serena rolled her eyes. “I have a choice?”
Chip laughed. “I don't bite, I promise to be a perfect gentleman. I'm just going to make sure you get some rest and follow Jamie’s advice.”
Serena felt another sigh coming up. Concussed with a twisted ankle, stuck in the house with one blond, handsome hunk of an officer, who was trying so hard to be nice to her. She let out the pent up sigh with deliberation. Could this day get any worse?
Chip pulled his SUV to Med Bay's main front entrance and shifted down into park. Poor girl just wasn't having a good day and now she had a mild concussion. She didn't need to be alone for the next few hours and with Wendy out of town, Chip felt he should keep and eye on her and make sure she took care of herself.
He found Serena still sitting in the wheelchair he had left her in. The woman looked absolutely miserable, dressed in pale blue scrubs that were too big for her and still wrapped in his borrowed blanket.
Ready?” he asked her with a smile.
“As ready as I’m ever going to be, I guess. This is not how I expected to spend my Saturday,” she replied as Chip pushed her outside.
Once by the car, Serena made as if to push herself up. The cold glare from Chip’s blue eyes stopped her short.
“What are you doing?” he asked her. She dropped back into the wheelchair and glanced up at him through her lashes, trying to look sad and pathetic. Obviously, Serena had borrowed a page out of the Lee Crane book of 'how to make people feel sorry for you'.
“I had the bright idea I might get in the car?” she suggested, looking up at Morton innocently.
Chip just shook his head. “Doc said not to put any weight on that foot. That’s why you are on crutches and why I am picking you up and setting you in the front seat.” With that announcement, Chip proceeded to do just that. Once he got her settled, he closed the door gently. By the time he crossed the front of the truck to his side and climbed in, Serena had already buckled her seat belt
“So where are we headed? I have a general idea of where you live, but I don’t know the exact address.”
“Yeah, an address would be nice,” Serena mumbled weakly. As Chip started the engine, she explained directions to her apartment. At one point Chip gave her an odd look.
“I know that area. It’s one of the older parts of town. Quite a drive back and forth. I thought the admiral was trying to talk you into moving into the Institute property.” Chip knew perfectly well the admiral wanted her in Institute housing. He wanted her off the streets and under some semblance of security. The admiral had been most adamant about the subject. After her and Lee’s kidnapping by Mason, Nelson had practically ordered her onto the property, but so far Serena had produced one excuse after another to put off the move. The latest had been a trip to Florida, as part of her ongoing pet project to locate and catalog the vast collection of downed planes and ships in that stretch of ocean between southern Florida, Bimini and Bermuda. Chip was well aware that Nelson was running out of patience with his stubborn daughter, and at some point the admiral wasn’t going to tolerate her excuses for much longer.
Serena leaned back in the seat. Chip could tell by her posture she was getting defensive. “He's got you in on the scheme now, huh?”
“He is my boss,” Chip replied.
“I'm considering it, okay? Angie's shown me a very nice place and I'm thinking about it right now.8”
Serena obviously didn't want to talk further about the subject, so Chip didn’t press it. He knew the admiral wanted Serena on the institute property, but short of shanghaiing her and forcing her to move, there wasn’t much anyone could do. The admiral's concerns about her safety were valid. Chip knew firsthand how determined some of the radical groups could be if they really wanted to get their hands on Admiral Nelson's daughter. He and Lee had plenty of stories about what they had run into over the years, but he didn’t want to scare her. They drove for a little longer in silence before Chip spoke up again.
“We’re coming up on your place. Where do you usually park?”
Serena stirred, obviously dozing as Chip drove. “I have a driveway. Just pull up since you don’t have to worry about blocking me in.”
Serena's apartment turned out to be an elegant, older townhouse on the dead end of a quiet street. Chip pulled the SUV into the driver and killed the engine.
“Security unlocked your car and gave me your keys. Stay put and I’ll be right back.”
“If I'm a good girl, do I get a Scooby Snack?” Serena muttered, watching Chip bounce from his side of the truck. He walked up the steps, unlocked the front door, and pushed it open. He then came back to the car and carefully lifted Serena out of the front seat.
He carried her into the house, closing the front door with a swift kick of his foot. “Where to, Doctor?” he asked with a teasing grin.
“Upstairs. I need to get the mud off of me and find some clothes that fit me. I'll use the crutches, I promise. I won't be on my feet. After that, I'm going to bed.”
“Are you sure? I don’t think you should be using that wrist.”
Choking back an exasperated sigh, Serena managed to be civil. “I'm positive. I can balance on my right foot. I was told not to overuse my wrist, and I promise to be careful. Besides, I hardly think you want to hang around while I change clothes and wash the mud off.”
You might be surprised, Chip thought as he carried the archaeologist upstairs and dropped her off in her bedroom, where he sat her down on the edge of the bed. “I'll be downstairs if you need anything,” Chip said. He couldn’t help a quick look around. What surprised him the six-foot tall shelf in the corner, filled from the floor to the ceiling with pink stuffed animals. Closer examination showed they were Pink Panther9 figures. Pink Panther? Serena collected the Pink Panther?
Serena noticed his gaze. “I happen to like the Pink Panther. Something wrong with that?”
“No, nothing wrong with that, I just didn’t know that about you.” Chip decided a change of subject was in order if he was going to stay on her good side and not get knocked upside the head with a crutch. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? I just don’t want you trying to do more than you should.”
“I'll be fine, Chip. Go on. There are leftovers in the fridge. Fix yourself something to eat. If I need you, I promise to yell.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Chip wandered downstairs, taking in the room. The furniture wasn't new, but it was sturdy and well kept. There was a mix of modern style and antique Victorian era, lending to an eclectic feel to the house. Mismatched antique shelves from different eras lined the walls and were filled with books and magazines. Curiously, Chip circled the room, getting a glimpse inside Serena's head.
The first thing he noticed was that she had tons of books on archeology. There were books on maritime history, Egyptology, and even a few on marine biology. There was quite a collection of fiction. He recognized the names of a number of authors. O’Brien. Forester. Pope. London. Cussler. Lawrence. Journals on Marine research. Tons and tons of National Geographic magazines. Massive works on the Bermuda Triangle. She had a number of music CD's that seemed to run from modern rock up to classical pieces. There were a few photos in frames scattered among the books. There was one shot of Serena and Wendy on the deck of some boat, and another of the two at some formal dinner, Wendy dressed in midnight blue evening gown, Serena dressed in deep forest green. Chip noticed that she seemed to favor greens and browns. He wondered briefly if she still had that dress. There were more pictures of Serena with various scientists Chip knew of. He recognized Robert Ballard, Sylvia Earle, and Philippe Cousteau. On the back of one shelf was a small picture of a woman with strawberry-blond hair and Serena's green eyes. He could see the resemblance and figured this must be her mother. A touch of whimsy was reflected in two wooden plaques that hung on the wall among the antique maps. One plague read Archaeologists don’t die, they just go underground while a second read Archaeology—can you dig it?
Knick-knacks were scattered around the room, drawn from a dozen or more countries. Fossils, odd crystals in different shapes and colors, shards of pottery, odd things he couldn't identify. There were vases and bowls of various shapes and colors. A few compasses that weren't on display in her office were perched on various shelves. She seemed to be a collector of odd things, no one overriding theme, just whatever struck her fancy. It was as if she couldn't pick one thing to focus on. Chip was reminded of the admiral and how he always seemed to be thinking of a dozen things at once. His stomach rumbled and he remembered the meal he had sacrificed to help his boss’s daughter.
As he pilfered through the refrigerator, he found himself rethinking the past couple of hours. Had he done the right thing? He couldn't let Serena stay by herself. She had a mild concussion and she had no business being by herself. He couldn't fault her for not wanting to stay in Med Bay. What's restful about someone checking your pulse and shining a light in your eyes every half an hour?
Thinking about Med Bay, Chip remembered he needed to call Lee and let him know what was going on. He pulled his cell phone out and dialed Lee’s number. It rang twice before Lee picked up.
“No you can’t borrow my car,” came Lee’s voice by way of greeting.
“You’re just jealous cause I look better driving it than you do,” Chip teased. Lee’s car was an ongoing joke between the two and Chip never failed to make at least a token attempt to get behind the wheel. Chip knew all he had to do was ask, but the game was getting the car WITHOUT actually asking.
“Cute,” Lee replied.
“Flattery will get you nowhere pal. Listen, I thought I’d let you know I’m staying with Serena, at least until Wendy gets back.”
Chip could hear Lee smiling over the phone and chose to ignore it. When Crane got an idea in his head, he never let go of it.
“Okay. I’ll bite. Why are you staying at Serena’s?”
Chip paused. It was possible that Jamie hadn’t told Lee about Serena’s fall. She wasn’t crew, so Lee wouldn’t necessarily need to be notified. “She fell,” Chip said without going into detail. “Jamie said she has a sprained ankle and wrist as well as a mild concussion.”
“Ah ha. Now I understand. Wendy’s out of town and she needs someone to stay with her to keep an eye on her. I’m sure the admiral will appreciate that.”
“I’m just going to make sure she doesn’t have any complications, since I’ve dealt with so many of yours,” Chip snapped teasingly.
“Hey, is it my fault that your head is harder than mine? Seriously, keep an eye on her. Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
“Sure thing, Lee. Try not to let something blow up while I’m gone.”
“Funny one, Morton. Take care of your girlfriend. Talk to you later,” Lee shot back.
“She’s not my girlfriend…” Chip started but Lee had already hung up. With a snort, Chip shoved the phone back into his pocket and dove back into the refrigerator.
That’s when he remembered Serena’s stuff was still out in the Jeep. Leaving an interesting dish of leftover ham and potato casserole on the counter, he popped out to retrieve her purse and the laptop case from the front seat of his car then dropped her stuff off on a small table by the door. A sudden crash from upstairs had Chip running, taking the stairs two at a time.
At the top of the stairs, Chip stopped and listened, following the sound of muttered, muffled swearing. He found Serena setting in a heap on the floor of her bedroom with one leg folded under her and the other leg—with the ankle still wrapped in the Ace bandage—stretched out in front of her. She had changed clothes and was now wearing an oversized tee shirt and a faded green robe. Chip noticed that she had some how managed to wash her hair. It hung loosely around her face, down her back and over her shoulders. Her green eyes glittered with unshed tears and Chip felt his heart flip, seeing her vulnerable without her defenses.
“Serena?” he asked. The redhead jerked up at the sound of his voice, wiping at her eyes and pulling herself back together.
“I was trying to comb out my hair and dropped my comb. When I tried to pick it up I overbalanced and hit the floor,” she said, her voice a touch shaky as she tried to raise herself up off the floor. Without a word, Chip put his arm around her waist and lifted her onto the edge of the bed. Serena settled down and took a deep breath.
Chip bent down a picked up the comb in question. “If you'll let me, I can help you with that. You don't have to prove you can do everything on your own.”
“You want to comb my hair?” Serena asked incredulously.
“You’re right hand dominate and you can't use that hand very well now. Most likely that's why dropped the comb. Just let me help.”
Serena was taken aback when Chip sat down on the edge of the bed. Carefully he worked the comb through the mass of her coppery hair, his long fingers working out the tangles and knots. As he worked, Serena had the thought that maybe this wasn't the first time he was done this for someone. She knew he had been married before but Wendy spoke very little of Chip’s ex-wife, save for the occasional disparaging remark. Serena wondered if Chip still spoke to his ex.
“Is that better?” he finally asked, the deep timbre of his voice touching off a spark in her gut that set the butterflies dancing again. She pulled herself out of her daydream and nodded.
“Thanks. If you don't mind, I think I'm going to try and get some sleep. You're welcome to stay in the spare bedroom, if you like,” she said. She pushed back the thought of curling up against that broad strong chest, letting his heartbeat lull her to sleep. Why did she keep having that thought?10 That was a fantasy if she ever dreamed one up and she shook her head to clear the invading thought.
Chip stood and smiled that warm smile that did nothing for the already spastic butterflies. “Do you need anything? I'll be just down the hall.”
Serena took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “First off, I need to apologize. I have been absolutely horrid to you. You could have left me in Med Bay.”
“Don't worry about it. I've been dealing with both Lee and the admiral for a few years now. All in all, you're not bad. Trust me, I've been stuck in Med Bay more times than I care to remember and I know for a fact it’s no fun. I wouldn't have left you there if I could help it.”
Serena smiled shyly and hooked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. “Well, thanks again, anyway.” The fingers of her other hand strayed toward the necklace she no longer wore, still missing its presence.
Chip wondered if there was a way he could find a replacement. He got to his feet and moved toward the door, setting the comb down on the dresser as he went. “You sure you don't need anything?”
“No, I'm fine. I'll yell if I need anything.”
“Sleep well, then,” Chip backed out of the bedroom, tactfully pulling the door closed behind him. For a long second he stood on the other side of the door, one hand lingering on the knob. Now was not the time, he forcefully told himself. She was tired, off center, and probably still in some degree of pain. He'd be a very poor man indeed if he tried to take advantage of the situation.
Morton took two steps way from the door and turned to go downstairs. There was the still the matter of that ham and potato casserole he had left on the counter.
At the top of the stair Chip felt his knees wobble and he had to grab at the wall to keep his balance. That's when he realized it wasn’t him but the whole house that was shaking.
What the devil . . .” Chip said aloud, glancing upwards. Cracks were appearing in the ceiling above him as understanding slowly down on him. There was only one thing it could be—an earthquake.
With out wasting time, Chip bolted back to Serena's room and threw the door open. He found her setting on the edge of the bed, the hands braced against the mattress. He snatched Serena up by the waist and pulled her toward the bedroom door.
“Downstairs,” he ordered and was grateful when she didn't argue. The house groaned and creaked as the ground shook. Chip didn't think the old house was going to stand the strain. Plaster was falling down around them and the doorframe cracked right over his head. Pulling Serena along with him, Chip wedged the two of them in the corner of the bedroom. There simply wasn't time to get downstairs. He wrapped his arms around the smaller woman, doing his best to protect her as her house slowly came crashing down around them.
The ceiling, stressed by time and past tremors, finally gave out. Great chunks of plaster and timbers began crashing all around the two as Chip held on to Serena. The floor rolled under their feet. It was like trying to stand on an ocean wave. Under them the floor dropped a good five feet and tilted sharply to the right. Serena jerked in surprise, clutching at Chip as the floor rolled. Both of them slid in the direction of the tilt, Chip doing his best to brace against gravity. The noise was deafening.
There was aloud 'snap'. The house was plunged into darkness. Finally everything grew still.
Slowly, Chip raised his head and felt his stomach take a nosedive. It was pitch black. Chip couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. There was only the sound of the house settling in the aftermath, as if waiting. There was a second of panic, as the memory of being blind11 came rushing back him. He didn’t have time for that right now. Serena was depending on him and he had to get them out of this mess. He took a few calming breaths as his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. He could just make out the outline of a far wall and the broken, hanging beams from the ceiling. Tangles of wires hung down and Chip prayed they weren’t live.
In his arms, he could feel Serena start to tremble. Lee had told him that Harrison had a phobia of the dark. Chip needed to see if there was a way out of this mess, but he didn’t think he could leave her. He felt her trembling slow as she got herself under control. If he was going to look for a way out, now was the time.
“Serena, I need to see if we can get out of here. I have to leave you but I want you to promise me you’ll stay here and not move. If there are any aftershocks, you’ll be protected here. Promise me.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Just don’t be gone long, okay?” Serena said. Her voice shook and Chip could tell that she was having a hard time keeping control of herself. He'd better make this fast.
“Good girl. I’ll be back. Promise.”
Chip let go of her and felt his way along the wall careful of the hanging wires and of anything that might trip him up. The floor under his feet took that opportunity to announce its instability, groaning and shifting before dropping another couple of inches. He froze and behind him heard the sharp intake of air as Serena reacted to the shifting floor. Step by agonizingly slow step, Chip eased his way back to his charge.
“I think maybe it’s time we called for backup,” Chip said. He reached out for her and felt her hand touch his arm, felt her fingers close around his wrist. He moved closer and pulled her closer to him. The two of them sank down to the floor, braced against the wall to wait.
“Backup would be handy about now,” she agreed with a shaky voice. Feeling around in his back pocket, Chip retrieved his cell phone. The light from the keypad and the screen lit the small space around them with an eerie blue glow. He pulled up Lee's number and waited.
“Come on, Lee. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up the phone.” Chip chanted over the ringing. Finally there was a click and Lee's voice answered.
“About time you answered,” Chip said.
“I was busy, commander smarty-pants.” Lee didn't sound at all repentant.
“What the blazes are you doing?”
“Earthquake. There may have been hull damage if Seaview knocked against the docks. You did know there was an earthquake, or were you to busy to notice?” Lee asked, his voice teasing.
“Yes, I know there was an earthquake,” Morton replied, ignoring the thinly veiled suggestion. “How about you give me the details after you dig us out.”
“Dig you out? What happened? Where are you? I thought you took Serena home.”
“I did. I think this place is a hold over from 190612. Only it didn't make it this time around. Looks like the roof came down on us. We’re kind sealed in. I felt the first tremor and went back for her. We never made it downstairs.”
Lee's voice took on a frantic twist. “Good God! Are you all right? How's Serena, she okay?” Do you have plenty of air?”
“Lee, calm down, we’re both fine. You need to hurry though. We're upstairs and I don't think the floor is all that steady.”
“Let me see what I can do. Hold on, okay?” A burst of static drowned out whatever Lee had to say. All Chip understood was, “…promise…out…how…hang on.”
“Sure, just hurry, will ya?” Chip said, but the line went dead and he wasn’t sure if Lee heard him. The phone lines were probably overwhelmed and there was no telling what kind of damage there might be. He put his arm around Serena. “Sill with me?” he to the figure tucked against his side.
“Nope, I thought I would step out for a pizza,” she quipped. The quiver in her voice was unmistakable. She was trying valiantly to hold herself together but Chip could tell it was a loosing battle.
“Extra pepperoni on mine. We seem to be stuck for the duration,” he answered. Her trembling had started again and this time she couldn’t seem stop. Chip tightened his grip, trying to reassure her.
“I’ve got you now, it’s okay. Nothing is going to happen to you while I’ve got you.” Chip’s voice was comforting and soothing, it gave her something to focus on, something to draw her attention way from the nightmare that was clawing at her mind and senses.
It didn’t last. In the darkness of Serena's own mind, memories of another accident began to emerge. The rumble as the cave ceiling gave out, the terrified screams of the other researchers, the crushing weight of rock and debris pinning her to the floor. The snap of both long bones of her lower right leg. The hours of being trapped in pitch darkness.
This time the terror crawled out of her soul like a starving dragon. There was no room for anything, no reason, no sense, no anything. Tears she had held back for so long finally broke free and like flood waters washing over levees, Serena felt her defenses slipping.
Unable to stop herself, Serena cried, deep, wracking sobs that shook her heart and soul. Chip held on to her as if he could somehow hold her together, his strong arms wrapped around her, his deep voice murmuring quiet words as she rode out one emotional wave after another.
“Just let it out. Let it go. I’ll bet you’ve kept this bottled up for a long time and you need to just let it go. I’ll never tell anyone, you can trust me. Just let it go.” He let instinct guide his words, hoping she would listen or that she would at least understand he was there for her.
Violent tremors made her whole body convulse as if she were seizing. Her fingers gripped the material of his shirt as she clung to him. He had never seen anyone react like this before. Lee had nightmares and was prone to lashing out if awakened too abruptly, but this wasn't natural. It was almost like she was flashing back to some point in her past. He knew very little about what she had been through. The best he could do for her was act as an anchor and hope that she could find her center once she had cried herself out.
After what seemed like hours, Serena’s shaking stopped and she grew quiet. Chip could still feel her breathing, slow and steady. With one hand he reached up and slowly ran his fingers over her long hair. He felt her shift position as she settled herself more securely against him.
Feeling better?” he asked quietly.
“Other than being completely and totally embarrassed that I acted like little preschooler scared of some monster,” she said. Her voice was low and rough from dealing with so many raw emotions.
“You have nothing to be embarrassed about. I’ll never tell anyone. I swear.”
“You won’t tell Jamie?”
Why is she afraid that I might tell Jamie? Chip shook his head and settled his arm around her. The uncontrollable shaking had stopped, but she still trembled. “I promise not to tell Jamie. Scout’s honor.”
“Mister Morton, somehow I don’t see you as a scout,” she replied weakly.
Chip settled his arm protectively around her, his hand found hers and he entwined his fingers with hers. He ran his thumb over the back of her hand, still feeling her trembling slightly. What ever had her so terrified was still lurking in the back of her mind. Chip knew he needed to get her mind off what ever it was that was so frightening. The only way to conquer a fear was to get her to open up about it. Fear was something he understood all too well.
“Can I ask you something?”
Serena hesitated before answering, “Okay.”
“Why are you afraid of the dark?”
“Who told you I was afraid of the dark?”
“A little bird told me. Talk to me, Ms. Harrison.”
For a long time Serena was quiet. There was only the feel of her steady breathing as Chip held her close. He thought maybe she had drifted off to sleep when her voice, still thick with emotions, drifted upwards.
“You know about the cave in,” she began.
Chip nodded then added a quiet ‘yes’, still gently caressing her hand with his thumb. The motion seemed to calm her somewhat and Chip was reluctant to stop.
“I’ve never known darkness like that. Complete and utter darkness. My leg was broken, the rocks were pinning me in. I thought…no one was going to find me. I was going to die alone, in the dark.”
The trembling started again, with violent shivers so severe, Serena could hardly talk. Chip wrapped both arms around her and held her close. She was fighting not to breakdown. When she spoke again Chip could barely hear her.
“Out of five people who went into that cave, I was the only one who came out alive.” She took a deep shuddering breath before continuing. Chip just held onto her as she shook.
“I couldn’t stand the darkness after that. After I got out of the hospital, I used to have panic attacks. Wendy and I connected somehow after the investigation and she’d visit when she could. She was the only one who could calm me down when I had an attack. Afterwards when she couldn’t be there, I used to curl up with a stuffed Pink Panther and ride out the attacks.”
Her voice broke and once more she lost control of her defenses. Like before, Chip held her and spoke softly into her ear, rocking her gently as she cried and trembled as the terror of her ordeal came back to haunt her.
“I’ve got you, I won’t let you go. I promise.”
For Chip, it seemed like days had passed. Serena eventually settled down and drifted off to sleep. Chip kept his arms wrapped around her, holding her close to him. She didn’t resist but actually snuggled closer to him. At one point she stirred in his arms and he felt her hand reaching up his chest.
“I want to feel your heartbeat. I have to know this is real and not my imagination,” Serena said softly.
Chip felt a smile creep over him. “Anything you need.”
“Chip, something else…at the cabin, I dreamed I fell asleep with you holding me. That wasn’t a dream, was it?”
Chip leaned his head back, remembering how she had folded against him, her body pressed against his…”No, that wasn’t a dream. You were so exhausted, you just drifted off and I didn’t have the heart to move you.”
A few minutes later, with her hand over his chest, Serena drifted off once more. Chip thought it was only fitting since the day he first saw her she owned his heart.
A low thud sounded overhead. Chip jerked his head upwards, following the sound as it seemed to move. A roar—muffled by the roof itself—filled the air, and then a thin shaft of light pierced the darkness. Someone was cutting a hole in the roof in an attempt to reach them.
Chip shook Serena’s shoulder gently. “Sweetheart, the cavalry's here.”
“About time. Tell Lee he’s got lousy customer service,” Serena mumbled.
A few more minutes and the shaft of light was now a beam, and then the beam became a blinding gift from above. A huge section of roof had been cut away and Chip was staring up at the very familiar silhouette of Lee Crane.
“Nice of you to drop in,” Chip said as Lee slowly climbed into the room.
“I thought you might like the company but I see you don’t need my help. Getting to be a habit with you,” Lee replied with an amused glance at Chip on the floor with the boss’s daughter in a protective embrace.
Chip glared up at Lee. “Not funny. Lee. She’s exhausted. Don’t make jokes.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get your socks in a wad. Either of you hurt?”
“I’m fine. Serena only has the injuries she had when I brought her home. We’ll have to carry her out.”
“You’d better let me take her. I don’t know if you can navigate through this mess holding her,” Lee said, with an eye on the myriad of hanging wires and loose pieces of dangling ceiling.
Chip pulled himself to his feet and mindful of Serena’s ankle, lifted her off the floor. She didn’t argue, but instead wrapped both arms around his neck as he eased closer to Lee.
Lee raised a curious eyebrow. Shy and timid around Chip, now suddenly Serena was holding onto him like he was a lifeline to sanity? Had something happened that Chip wasn’t talking about? Morton caught the raised-eyebrow look and frowned, his own expression turning frosty. The statement was clear to Lee. Whatever had happened, Chip wasn’t talking. Well, whatever it was, it could wait till he got everybody to safety. Lee came forward, ready to take Serena from Morton. Before Chip could warn him, the unstable floor shifted under Lee’s weight and the floor collapsed.
Gravity took over and Chip over-balanced with Serena slipping out of his grasp and sliding along in front of him. He managed to grab hold of her left hand as she slid over the edge of the disintegrating floor but he couldn’t stop himself from following. They were going over and there wasn’t anything Chip could do to save them.
There was a hard jerk around Chip’s midsection and everything stopped. Serena dangled over a nest of wires, plumbing and jagged-edged boards, caught in a two handed grip as Chip held onto her left hand and wrist. With a quick backwards glance, Chip understood why he had stopped.
Lee Crane had his own vice-like grip on the back of Morton’s belt while the other hand held onto a rope tied around Lee’s waist, a rope that Chip never noticed till now. The other end of the rope vanished outside the hole in the roof. It was the only thing that had saved the three of them.
Lee tossed a glance back to the hole and bellowed, “Kowalski! I need you to pull!”
Chip felt the tension growing and slowly Lee backed toward the hole, pulling Chip and Serena along as he went. Finally Chip was able to pull her out of the hole.
Shaking and trembling like a leaf in the wind, Serena didn’t have the strength to stand on her own, even if Chip would let her. With his arms around her waist, she glanced up into his blue eyes.
“You did say you wouldn’t let go,” she said as her eyes rolled back and she collapsed into Morton’s arms.
The last thing Serena remembered before everything went black was looking up into Chip’s brilliant blue eyes. She must have passed out at some point, but she certainly didn’t remember it. She didn’t remember being brought back to Med Bay either, but that’s certainly where she was now.
She glanced around, noticing the lights were turned down low, but weren’t completely turned off. Her right wrist was wrapped in a clean bandage. She could only assume her ankle had been taken care of as well. She glanced over to her right to see the broad-chested figure of Chip Morton, stretched out in a chair, his feet propped up on the edge of the mattress.
How many times had he done this for Lee? Countless. She had heard the stories, seen it a few times herself. Wendy had done that for her, after the accident. Was this a Morton trait? Or was Chip keeping watch over her something more?
“Chip?” she said softly and was rewarded when his luminescent blue eyes open. He smiled at her as he straightened up.
“Nice to see you awake. How are you feeling?”
“Tired. Sore. How did I get here?”
“You passed out, so we brought you back here. Jamie wants to keep you under observation. He says your heart rate is elevated and your blood pressure is up. I tried to tell him MY blood pressure goes up when I’m stuck in here.”
“Did you tell him about me?” Serena had been though therapy before. She hated it and she’d hated the therapist, Dr. Stephen Rinaldi. His probing questions about her childhood had nothing to do with the accident or her phobia of the dark. She’s gone to four sessions, then walked out and had refused any further association with the man. She’d never mentioned him and there was no record of being treated by him in her medical record. The idea that Jamie might send her back into therapy had always lurked in the back of her mind. It was the reason she’d worked hard not to draw attention to her fear of the dark.
Chip shook his head and raked a hand through his short blond hair. “I said I would never tell. Not to Jamie, not to the admiral. A promise is a promise. I wouldn’t be a very good officer if I couldn’t keep a few secrets.”
Serena felt a smile tug at her lips. “And how many secrets are you keeping, Commander Morton?”
Chip smiled, full wattage. “That would be telling,” he replied. “I think you should tell Jamie though. He’s very good, and this is something he needs to know. Trust me.”
Serena felt the exhaustion creeping back on her. She let out a weary breath, thinking about the last few hours. It suddenly occurred to her that her house was probably a complete loss.
“I’ll have a talk with him later,” she relented, with reluctance oozing from every pore. “Anything left of my house?” she asked.
“Good girl. About your house, there isn’t much, I’m afraid. The top floor collapsed in an aftershock, right after Lee dug us out. I know it’s probably not the best time to ask this, but where are you going to go from here?”
“Well, I was looking at a house here on the grounds. I can move into that, I guess. I don’t suppose any of my stuff is salvageable?”
Chip thought back to the wreckage of her house. “Not really. Sweetheart, I’m sorry.”
“All my pictures. My music. My books. Did you know I had almost the entire collection of National Geographics? I just needed nine issues to complete the collection,” she said sadly. She couldn’t seem to keep her eyes open and slowly they closed.
Chip couldn’t help himself. He reached over to her and brushed a stray strand of coppery auburn hair from her eyes. “Let me see what I can do. We might be able to salvage some of your stuff.” Chip was determined to save what he could of her belongings. He already had one piece, something he had grabbed on his way out after Lee came after them.
But Serena didn’t seem to hear him. She had drifted off again. Chip watched her breathing grow slow and regular. Gently Chip gathered one of her hands in his, watching as her slender fingers curled against the palm of his hand in reflex.
He wanted nothing more than to simply gather her in his arms and protect her. Or at least try to. He wanted her to know he was there if she needed him. He wanted her to understand that he wanted to be there for her. What was he feeling for her? He had thought he loved Vanessa, but this. . . this was different.
From the floor next to the bed, Chip reached down and retrieved the one thing he had been able to snatch before scrambling out of her house. Carefully he tucked the object against Serena’s side, in the crook of her arm. In her sleep she reflexively tightened her grip on it, drawing it closer to her. Watching her now, Chip had a glimpse of the child she must have been at ten or eleven, before the events of her life molded and shaped her. Again, he wanted to just hold her and protect her, to try and make her feel safe.
Chip rose out of the chair and made his way across the room to the door, just as Lee appeared.
“How is she?” Lee asked with a nod to his boss’s daughter.
“She’s exhausted. I think she’ll be all right though. I want a couple of volunteers to go back to her house and salvage what we can.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. What about you?” Lee asked with a raised eyebrow. Chip was smart enough to know he wasn’t asking about his physical health
For a second Chip almost broke and told Lee what he was feeling for Admiral Nelson’s daughter. He had already ready admitted having feelings for her. Chip couldn’t get her out of his head, the smell of her hair, the feel of her body against his, the way she trembled in the dark as he held her close….
Chip shook his head to chase away the memory. “I’m fine. I need to know which house Serena was looking at. She’s going to need a place to live and we need a place to put what we can salvage.” Chip picked up his pace and was heading down the hall. When he realized that Lee wasn't following, he turned around, frowning.
“Lee, are you coming?”
Caught off guard by what he was seeing as he glanced into Serena’s room, Lee could only nod distractedly. “Yeah, sure. On my way,” he mumbled and turned around, still puzzled.
Serena Harrison sighed deeply in her sleep, the stuffed Pink Panther that Chip had rescued still clutched tightly in her arms.
1 NEXRAD (NEXt-Generation RADar) is a network of high-resolution Doppler weather radars operated by the National Weather Service
2 Company of Shadows
5 Friendly Fire
7 Company of Shadows
9 The Pink Panther is produced by Mirisch Films and DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. Used here by the author without permission, so please don’t sue me. At the time of this writing, I am but poor unemployed college student who still uses Word 2000.
10 Company of Shadows
11 Journey with Fear. Season 4 Vol.1—Disk1: Side A
12 For those who might not get this reference, in 1906 a massive earthquake hit San Francisco, California. The actual strength of the quake isn’t known but estimates range from 7.0 to 8.25 on the Richter scale, making it one of the largest quakes in United States history. The quake virtually destroyed the city and was felt as far north as the state of Oregon, as far south as Los Angeles, and as far inland as central Nevada. This concludes today’s geography history. J