What Friends Are For?

By R. L. Keller



“Damn!”  Chip grumbled as the phone went off.  “Now what?”  He’d only moments before gotten to his apartment, changed from his uniform into relaxed fit jeans and an old, soft t-shirt, and crashed into his favorite chair.  The sound stopped his movement to pop the top on the beer he’d grabbed.  “Morton,” he growled into the receiver.


“Mr. Morton, Sir,” came a voice Chip instantly recognized as belonging to Seaview’s senior rating, Kowalski.  “Sorry to bother you, but…”


Chip heaved a sigh.  “What’s the problem, Ski?  Thought you’d already left on leave.”


“Did, Sir.  Arranged to meet a couple friends for a beer or two.”  Chip gave his still unopened can a wistful look.  “Ah, I think you’d better come down here.”


“Why?” Chip grumbled again.  “And where’s ‘here’?”


Kowalski gave him an address down in the older part of Santa Barbara, along the docks.  What the hell?  “What are you doing down there?”  Chip knew it came out in his best – or worst – XO voice.  He chastised himself when there was a slight hesitation before the seaman answered.  Ski wouldn’t have called if he didn’t have a very good reason.


“There’s a really good little bar here, Sir.  Kind of scruffy on the outside.  But the burgers are good, the beer’s cold.  There are pool tables, live music – if you can call it that – on weekends…”


“Get to the point,” Chip cut him off darkly.


“Aye, Sir.  Well, the problem is, ah, well…”  Chip was about to scream.  “Sir, the Skipper just walked in.”


“What?”  Chip knew he yelled, and didn’t care.  The place didn’t sound like anywhere Lee would even know about, let alone go into willingly.  “Did he say why he was there?”


“That’s just the point, Sir.  He stalked in, ordered a double bourbon, downed it, ordered another, and finally sat down at a back table.  Laid money on the table, and told the waitress to keep filling his glass until told otherwise.  From the look on his face, I ain’t going near him, Sir.  Trying to make sure he doesn’t even see me.  Sorry.”


Chip sighed.  He’d known Lee was ticked.  Had been most of the last week.  But even he didn’t realize it was this bad.  “Be there as fast as I can.  Keep an eye on him, will you?”


“Aye, Aye, Sir.”


“And Ski?”


“Yes, Sir?”




“No problem, Sir.  Just thought…”


Chip gave a humorless chuckle.  “You did the right thing.”  Now, whether or not Lee will think the same thing is another matter…  Shoving himself out of the chair, he put the beer back in the fridge and took off, thinking back on the last week.




Seaview had docked just a few hours ago, after the annual cruise her captain, Lee Crane, immediately dubbed ‘Hell Week’.  Once a year several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee descended on NIMR, and this was Lee’s first experience dealing with the invasion.  Besides a tour of the research facilities and an all-staff reception – complete with Dress Whites – the visit also included a cruise aboard Seaview.  This year it was an easy five-day run out to Logan Sealab and back.


Or what was supposed to be an easy run.  Lee hated civilians aboard Seaview at the best of times, and kow-towing to a group of politicians was particularly high on his list of disgusting but necessary tasks.  Since one of this year’s batch was a woman, the two male members decided to bring their wives along.  Chip spent nearly the entire first day insulating his Captain as much as possible from the guests.  Not an easy task, especially when Senator Madeline Farnsworth and Mrs. Colbert discovered an instant fascination with the submarine’s famous windows and spent almost all their time aboard in the observation nose, after the initial tour Admiral Nelson gave the group through the giant submarine.  Senators Colbert and Lennox spent much of the following days with Nelson, discussing the kinds of projects NIMR was involved with, and what proposals might be in the Institute’s future.


The main problem turned out to be Mrs. Lennox.  Chip noticed Lee cringe every time she was anywhere in the vicinity.  A strikingly beautiful woman, Lee’s reaction to her was slightly out of character.  While Lee might not like dealing with civilians aboard, he normally went out of his way to be polite and make the best of the situation.  On those occasions he was forced to deal with the group that first day, mainly at mealtimes, he visited with Senator Farnsworth and Mrs. Colbert quite easily, answering questions and seemingly enjoying himself.  But abruptly, on the second day, Lee quit showing up in the Wardroom.  A few discreet questions from Chip and Cookie confirmed that Lee was eating, just in his cabin.  Lee also didn’t spend much time wandering around Seaview, as was his habit.  A few more discreet questions had Sharkey explaining that Lee seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in his cabin.  “Locked in his cabin,” Sharkey told his XO with a nervous expression.  Chip was quick to note the abnormality – Lee never locked his cabin door.  Chip didn’t have much time to dwell on the reasons, however, as he was kept busy having to retrieve Mrs. Lennox.  She seemed determined to wander around on her own, and always seemed to choose the most restricted areas to get ‘lost’ in.


Chip had been kept busy the third day with other tasks.  Seaview arrived at Logan early that morning, and Chip had supplies to transfer.  Lee was already in the Control Room when Chip got there, and supervised Lt. O’Brien’s settling of the submarine close enough for FS1 to make the deliveries easily, as well as taking Admiral Nelson and his five guests across for a tour of that facility as well.  Lee then spent the day as if nothing was wrong.  Oh, Chip still noticed a darker than usual expression cross his friend’s face off and on.  Especially when any of the passengers were mentioned.  But Lee joined his XO in the Wardroom at lunchtime, and generally seemed to be back to his normal self.


Until Nelson returned with his guests.  Lee was in the Control Room when FS1 returned from her last trip, going over departure procedures with Lt. James.  Chip was standing to one side, grinning behind his computer printout.  Lee had spent time going over the charts of the area with the young lieutenant, then let Chris plot the course away and back toward Santa Barbara.  As Chris talked out loud, telling Lee his intended course and speed, Chip caught the minor mistake and noticed a quick frown cross Lee’s face.  Chris James, never slow on the uptake, caught the look as well and immediately buried his head in the figures.  It took him only a moment to realize that his intended route would point Seaview’s screws directly at the sealab, close enough to have rattled test tubes if Chris had then asked for his intended speed.  Lee had just given his nod of approval to James’ quickly revised departure plan when the Flying Sub’s docking clamps locked into place and Chief Sharkey undogged the hatch.  Chip watched Lee’s expression return to the dark, hooded one he’d had most of the first day as the guests climbed out of the hatch.  There was a brief exchange of smiles between Lee and Nelson when the Admiral emerged before Lee nodded to Lt. James, sent a glance Chip’s way, and retreated up the spiral stairs toward Officers’ Country.




Chip frowned as he pulled into the parking lot at the address Kowalski had given him.  For a moment he didn’t see Lee’s little red sports car, and wondered if he’d already left.  But he finally spotted it parked way in the back, and found a place for his own SUV close by.  Taking a deep breath, he headed for the front door.  Kowalski’s comment about the place looking a little scruffy was dead on.  The outside of the building was in definite need of a facelift.  But inside, Chip was surprised to find a pleasant little honky-tonk.  In one area three pool tables were in use.  Across one side was a long bar being manned by two bartenders, and at least three waitresses were keeping the clientele, either playing pool or sitting at the twenty or so tables scattered around, happy, both with drinks, and food items from a kitchen in the back.  On a small stage at the far end of the room four musicians were putting out almost bearable Country/Western music, and a small dance area in front of them was filled with a dozen or so people line-dancing.


Chip had entered quietly, walked over to the end of the bar, and ordered a beer.  He didn’t notice Kowalski until the seaman was almost next to him, and raised an eyebrow.


“Last table in the corner, Sir.”  Chip had to look hard into the darkest area of the room, but finally spotted a familiar head, glass half full of amber fluid in his hand.


“How many?” Chip asked, not sure he really wanted the answer.


“Halfway through his fourth, Sir,” came the answer, worry evident in the seaman’s voice.


Chip took a long swallow of his beer, sighed heavily, and nodded.  “Thanks for the call,” he told Kowalski.  “Looks like its going to be an ‘interesting’ evening.”


Ski cringed.  “Me and the guys, well, we were going to head over to BZ’s.  The music is getting to us.  But I can stay if you think…”


Chip gave the seaman a sympathetic smile.  “You go on, Ski.  I’ll handle it from here.”


“Sure you don’t need some help?”


Chip’s smile broadened.  While the entire crew kept careful watch over their frequently impetuous Skipper, the senior rating had become the most forward about it.  A little surprising, since he was also the one most ticked off when Lee had first come aboard Seaview.  But Chip had watched open animosity turn fairly rapidly to respect, and respect to, despite the difference in rank, a very special friendship.  Chip knew Ski was honestly worried about his Skipper – and friend.


“I’ll be fine,” Chip now assured the man.  “Been through this before.”  He sighed heavily again.  “Been awhile, however.  You go on and enjoy your leave.”


“If you’re sure, Sir.  You have my home number?   You’ll maybe need help, I mean, well, if you drive the Skipper home, how will you get his car there?  I could stop by on my way home later.  See if you’re still here…”


Chip gave him an honest grin.  “Thanks for the offer, Ski, but I’ll manage.  My job.  Been taking care of him since he was a skinny plebe, barely shaving.”  Ski chuckled, nodded, and left, and Chip took his glass and headed toward the back of the room.


He had a feeling Lee wasn’t going to be happy to see him, and he wasn’t disappointed.  “What the hell do you want?” came with a look Chip had only rarely seen on his friend’s face.  Nothing like the command glare he used on duty, this one came with flat brown eyes, devoid of their usual sparkle, exuding more a look of recklessness and danger.  He, too, had changed out of his uniform and into dark pullover and slacks.  The color contrasted sharply with the white bandage around his left hand.  If not for that, Chip wondered briefly if Lee was on some unknown ONI assignment.  But if he were he would have removed the all too blatant-colored wrap.


Already prepared for the comment, or something similar, Chip kept his expression benign.  “Your car keys,” he answered quietly, standing next to the table.  Lee held his hard expression long enough that Chip was starting to get worried, but finally gave a soft snort, tossed the key ring across the table, and went back to staring at the small band.  He downed what remained in his glass and set it none to gently on the table.  Chip released a breath he hadn’t until then been aware he was holding, pulled out a chair, and sat down across from Lee.  He didn’t glance Lee’s way again as he turned and also checked out the stage, but he could almost feel the twin lasers boring holes in the back of his head.  He figured that the only thing stopping another outburst was the waitress appearing with a fresh glass for Lee.  She’d evidently given up getting a response from the darkly handsome man, not even casting him much of a glance as she took what she needed from the money on the table.  But Chip gave her a brief smile that she returned, with a look at his glass.  It was still half full so Chip just shook off her suggestion of a refill.  He did, however, ask for a plate of taquitos, small meat- and cheese-filled appetizers that he’d seen delivered to another table, and several small containers of salsa.  He wasn’t overly hungry but if he could get Lee to munch a few, they’d help counter at least a little of the alcohol.


“Thought all you wanted was my keys,” came threateningly from behind him once the waitress left.


“Didn’t think you’d mind if I stayed long enough to finish my drink,” he answered, purposely not looking in Lee’s direction, “and suddenly realized I was hungry.  Those looked really good that just went by.”


“You’re always hungry,” came another growl, not quite as menacingly.


Chip smothered a small smile.  Good – that was a more normal reaction.  He slouched a bit more comfortably in the chair and sipped at his beer.  He realized suddenly that where he’d chosen to sit, he was basically insulating his CO from the rest of the room, as tucked back in the corner as Lee had settled.  He gave himself a wry smile and let his thoughts return to the rest of the recent cruise.  There was nothing he knew about that could have triggered this severe a reaction in Lee.  Obviously missed something.




Chip watched Nelson frown at Lee’s departing back, spend a few minutes chatting with his guests as they settled down in the Nose to watch Seaview’s departure from the sealab, then come over to where Chip was standing.  Raising one eyebrow, he nodded toward the stairs.


“Haven’t a clue, Sir,” Chip answered quietly.  “But something’s got him bugged, that’s for sure.”


“Something to do with our guests,” Nelson said just as quietly.


“Pretty obviously, Sir.  He’s never happy to have civilians aboard.  And especially politicians.”


“He’d better get used to it.  It happens every year,” came out almost a snarl.


“I’ll go up and see if I can get him to calm down.”


“While you’re at it, tell him dinner tonight is in the Observation Nose.  Nothing fancy.  And his presence is strongly suggested.” 


“Yes, Sir,” Chip answered.  “I’ll give him the message.  Just as soon as I explain to Mrs. Lennox – again – that she’s not allowed in the Conn.  He sighed heavily.


Nelson gave his XO a sympathetic smile as Chip stalked off to rescue his sonar operator.




Gad, that woman!  Chip closed his eyes a moment and took a sip of his beer.  The plate of appetizers arrived just then, and Chip paid the waitress.  Once she’d left he grabbed a couple and one of the small cups of salsa, casually pushing the rest to the middle of the table away from the edge – and closer to Lee – before returning his thoughts to the previous few days.




He walked over, reminded Mrs. Lennox that she’d been requested to come no further than where the crash doors closed “for your safety,” he’d said – for the umpteenth time – and escorted her back to the Nose.  Senator Lennox gave him an apologetic little smile and his wife an “I told you so.”  Chip left before he could hear her response.  He nodded to Lt. James, who by now had Seaview turning properly, and partially closed the crash doors on the group in the Nose.  Admiral Nelson was in the midst of regaling them with one of Seaview’s more benign adventures, and Chip headed up the stairs after his disgruntled CO.


He was startled by the snapped “Who is it?” in answer to his light knock.  “Chip,” he replied, almost hesitantly.  Lee didn’t answer but Chip heard footsteps, and then the sound of the lock releasing.  The door opened just a crack before the footsteps retreated.  Chip opened the door slowly and took a step inside.  Lee was just settling behind his desk, scowl on his face, and Chip decided a little lightening of the atmosphere was definitely in order.  “You haven’t locked a cabin door since the night we booby-trapped Gunny Zitka’s office and didn’t realize the guard’s watch was ten minutes fast.”


He was relieved when a brief smile split Lee’s frown.  “If he’d found us in there, with what we had…”  Lee didn’t finish the sentence, but both men shivered before ending up grinning.


“Think Gunny ever figured out it was us?”  Chip relaxed a bit, and settled a hip on the corner of Lee’s desk.


“Oh yeah!  Couldn’t prove it.”  Lee sighed heavily.  “But he knew.”  Both shared another grin, before Chip nodded toward the door and raised an eyebrow.  The scowl came back.  “You want something?”


“A little concerned is all,” Chip said as casually as he could muster.  “You’ve just been quiet this trip.  Thought, if there was something you wanted to talk about…”


“NO, there isn’t!”


Obviously this isn’t the time for a little friendly conversation, Chip counseled himself.  “Okay.  Not a problem.  I’ll let you get back to your reports.”  He stood and glanced down at the papers scattered across Lee’s desk, and was relieved when the hard scowl softened a bit.


“Tell Chris Seaview felt very smooth moving away from Logan.”


“Will do.  Oh, the Admiral said to tell you that dinner’s in the Nose, and khaki will be fine.”


“Having dinner here.  Still a lot to do.”  The frown was back.


“Don’t think that was one of the options.”  Chip jumped when Lee’s fist hit the chair arm, but held his ground.  He watched as Lee took a deep breath.


“Understood,” was all he said, however.  Chip waited a second but when nothing else was forthcoming, turned to leave.  Once back in the corridor he paused, dismayed to hear the lock once again engage.  Shaking his head, he returned to the Conn.


He just about decided Lee was going to ignore the Admiral’s ‘suggestion’ to appear at dinner.  Everyone else was seated, and Nelson was glaring at the empty chair between Mrs. Lennox and Senator Farnsworth, when footsteps sounded on the spiral stairs.  Chip’s sigh of relief changed to disbelief when the person descending turned out to be Lt. Keeter, however, and not Lee.  The Mechanics Officer looked decidedly uncomfortable as he stopped at the bottom and addressed the Admiral.  “The Captain sends his regrets for being late, Admiral, and said you should start without him.”


“And just where is the Captain,” Nelson asked with exaggerated care.  It caused Chip to hold his breath.


“He came down to Engineering a little while ago, saying that the starboard screw felt funny.  Everything showed green but you know how the Skipper ‘feels’ things before we notice them…”


Chip grinned to himself.  Yep – that’s Lee.  He watched Nelson let out a sigh.


“And what was wrong.  I never felt anything, either.”


“Couldn’t find anything, Sir.  Just need to make sure the panel lights are working properly…”  He nodded toward the Conn.  “As soon as we double-check it, the Skipper said he’d be here.”


As he figured Admiral Nelson was trying to formulate an answer without blasting the lieutenant into the next time zone – since that wasn’t who he was angry with – Chip stepped in.  Sure isn’t the first time.  “Understood, Lieutenant.  Carry on.  And be quick about it.”


“Aye, aye, Sir.”  Keeter gave him a decidedly relieved look and scurried through the still partially closed crash doors.


The group had just finished their salads when more footsteps were heard, this time belonging to Lee.  However, his head had barely cleared the upper deck when he hesitated, mumbled, “Sorry.  Be right back,” and he went flying back up.  In response to Nelson’s instant glare, Chip just shrugged his shoulders.  The Admiral, with apparent effort, tried to laugh it off with something about a Captain’s job being 24/7, and continued his explanation of the submarine’s crew structure, in answer to a question from Senator Farnsworth.


Not only had Lee never returned, but halfway through the main course Dr. Jamison was called by one of the corpsmen to return to Sick Bay.  He muttered something along the lines of his job being worse than the Captain’s.  Everyone else chuckled and continued the meal.  But Chip was slightly worried.  There was no reason given for Doc’s having been called away except that there was an injured crewman.  Chip knew that the corpsmen could handle any minor problems without disturbing the Doctor, and anything serious would have been reported immediately.  That left only one logical answer – the ‘crewman’ that was injured was someone neither of the corpsmen wanted to tackle on their own.  Chip was, therefore, not totally surprised when Doc rejoined the dinner party about twenty minutes later, a slight smirk on his face.


“Nothing serious, I hope, Doctor,” Senator Lennox asked as Higgins, the cook’s assistant, and tonight’s steward, returned Doc’s plate to the table from the warming tray where he’d placed it.


“Just a slightly painful encounter with a bulkhead,” Doc grinned, gave Chip a quick wink, and finished his interrupted meal.


Chip watched Nelson continue to give infrequent scowls toward the empty chair, and once or twice toward Chip.  Especially as the meal was breaking up and Chip excused himself to return to the Conn.  Knowing it wasn’t really him that Nelson was perturbed with helped Chip from feeling too badly.  But he was a little worried about what would happen to Lee when the Admiral finally caught up with him.  The remainder of the evening, however, was quiet.  At least for Seaview’s XO.  The full day of activity – and their full stomachs – had the guests heading for their cabins by 2130.  Nelson floated through the Conn and glanced around, obviously looking for his Captain.  Chip just shrugged his shoulders again at the Admiral’s raised eyebrow.  “Haven’t seen hide nor hair of him,” he said quietly, and Nelson stalked off up the spiral stairs.


Chip was just about to make the journey up to Officers’ Country himself about 2230 when Lee finally showed up, coming in through the aft hatch and making one of his seemingly casual walk-throughs, pausing at each station to check instrumentation and say a few words to whichever crewman had the duty.  There was a soft cast taped in place on his left hand, that extended up his wrist to disappear under his shirt cuff, but Chip didn’t see any scorch marks.  Nelson must not have caught up with him yet and blasted him about dinner, Chip mused.  The grin was still on his face when Lee finally made it to the chart table where he was standing.  He’d sent O’Brien off to check the GPS unit against the computer printout, and was just waiting for the Lieutenant to return before giving him the Conn and heading for his rack.


The relaxed expression Lee had on his face as he worked his way through the Control Room disappeared, and he sent Chip one of his better Command glares.  “You find something funny, Mr. Morton?” he challenged.


Chip had to work extra hard to keep from chuckling.  “Just wondering if it was worth it – punching out the bulkhead,” he replied, nodding toward Lee’s bandaged hand.


“For your information I did not punch out the bulkhead.”  Chip watched as the glare was replaced by a momentarily sheepish look.  “The bulkhead won all three rounds.”


The chuckle escaped with a snort.  Chip stood grinning at his friend, waiting for the explanation, but Lee busied himself with the status reports.  O’Brien returned just then, the three went over Seaview’s current position and heading, and Chip headed finally to his cabin.  What he really wanted to do was drag Lee with him and get some answers.  But since nothing short of a Court Martial-able offense seemed likely to make that happen, Chip reluctantly left.  Lee and Bobby were by then involved in a technical discussion over various screw designs, and barely noticed him leave.




Speaking of barely noticing, Chip reached for another couple taquitos and out of the corner of his eye caught the last of one being stuffed in Lee’s mouth.  Carefully not looking fully in his friend’s direction, he smothered a grin.  Hallelujah.  At least a start in the right direction.




The last two days of the trip had gone by quickly and quietly, thankfully.  At least for Chip.  He’d seen little of Lee, and discovered from the Watch sheets that the CO was standing “D” watch with O’Brien.  Nelson continued to scowl, but Chip had caught him and Doc with their heads together in the Wardroom, and the Admiral made no more mention to Chip of Lee’s strange behavior.  Even Mrs. Lennox quit being such a pest, and spent the days sitting quietly in the Nose with the other two ladies.


Lee reappeared about an hour before Seaview docked back in Santa Barbara, going through the procedures of settling Seaview back into her berth as if nothing were wrong.  Oh, Chip noticed a bit harder than normal expression still on his face as he saw their passengers safely ashore.  He also noticed a decided tendency for Lee to avoid looking at Nelson.  But the Admiral wouldn’t be completely finished with the senators until he saw them finally out the front gate.  That left Chip and Lee to release the crew to leave, lock things up, and head for a few days of down time themselves.  Not that Chip had any doubts that Lee would be back in the morning, hard at work in his office.  But he breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the back of Lee’s car clear the grounds.




He revised that thought as another empty glass hit the table, to be quickly replaced by a full one.  Chip did notice a decided hole on Lee’s side of the taquito plate, but kept his own counsel.  By that time his own mug was nearly empty and he ordered a refill.  Not many minutes after the waitress had come and gone a low growl emanated from Lee’s direction.


“Many more of those and you won’t be driving, either.”


“Last one,” Chip answered casually, still focused on the small band.  They really aren’t that bad, he thought.  He’d have preferred a little light jazz, but watching the line-dancers was fun.


Several more minutes of silence was followed by, “You have no idea, do you?”


“Not a clue,” Chip said honestly, and turned his chair just slightly in Lee’s direction.  “Except that it had something to do with the civilians.”  He was a little concerned when the expression he’d seen on Lee’s face when he first got there momentarily returned, and the nearly full glass of bourbon was drained.  Nothing was said by either until once again it was replaced with a full one.  Chip just watched as Lee took a sip of the fresh drink, then sat swirling the amber liquid around.  The hard look had changed to one of resignation.  “Don’t need to know,” Chip said finally, reaching for one of the remaining appetizers.


Lee sighed heavily.  “Yeah, you do.”  He gave Chip one of his little sheepish smiles.  “Might as well get in a little practice.  Nelson will have me cleaning the specimen tanks until I explain.”


“Might anyway,” Chip snickered, and was relieved when Lee gave him a little grin.  “He is seriously ticked at you, boy.”


“Has every right to be.  I behaved like an ass!”


“No joke, Sherlock,” Chip agreed readily.  He got the glare from his friend that he was expecting, but Lee quickly dropped his eyes and went back to staring at his glass, continuing to swirl its contents.  Chip waited patiently.


“Started the night of the reception,” Lee said so softly that Chip had to strain to hear over the noise in the bar.  He turned casually and moved his chair a little closer.  That damn Mrs. Lennox!”  Chip heard that all too clearly, and nearly choked on a swallow of beer.  Lee glared at him but went back to staring at his own glass as Chip cleared his throat.


“She was a bit of a pest,” the blond offered carefully.


Lee muttered something that Chip was pretty sure he was glad he couldn’t hear.  “Damn broad couldn’t keep her hands to herself.”


Chip couldn’t stop that grin.  His long-time friend was very old school when it came to women.  He treated them with respect and consideration, and expected them to do the same.  There had been the occasional run-in with an aggressive one, Chip remembered, and Lee had handled it by simply staying out of their way.  Now that I think about it, that’s basically what he tried to do this time.  Polishing off the last taquito, he decided he needed to lighten up Lee’s dark look.  “Hey, you know what they say about a man in dress whites.  Especially with your dark complexion,” he chuckled.


The plan backfired, and Lee’s dark, dangerous look came back, accompanied by another epithet.  “I couldn’t turn around and there she was, hands on my ass.  And other places…”  Chip couldn’t help it.  He burst out laughing.  It didn’t help Lee’s black look at all, at least to begin with.  As Chip finally got himself back under control he noticed Lee’s expression lighten a bit, although he still growled at the blond.  “Yeah, yeah.  Pretty funny.  Laugh all you want.”


Chip finally settled down.  “Sorry, Lee.  You know that.  But you have to admit, this isn’t the first time that the Old Crane Charm has had women swooning all over you.”  He was still grinning, still trying to laugh with his friend, not at him.”


“This was different,” was all Lee would mutter, and took a long swallow from his glass.


“How so?”


Lee stared into his glass for so long, Chip wasn’t sure he was going to answer.  The waitress came by to pick up the empty plate, with a raised eyebrow at Chip.  He just shook his head no and went back to watching the line-dancers, nursing his beer.


“Obviously she didn’t end up in your cabin,” Lee finally muttered.  Chip looked at him carefully.  Lee remained silent for a bit while Chip digested the revelation, then began to explain.   “I went up to work on reports the first day out.”


Chip nodded.  SOP.  When the boat was quiet Lee usually spent from about 1400 to 1630 or so in his cabin.  “As I recall, you came right back to the Conn.


Chip couldn’t remember ever seeing quite that look of…what? ...terror?on Lee’s face.  “She was in my rack!” he barely whispered, and took a big slug of the bourbon.  Chip choked, looking at Lee incredulously.  “I walked in and she was laying there, bold as brass, half undressed.”  He took another slug from the glass as Chip did the same from his mug of beer.


“What did you do?” Chip finally asked, disbelief still evident in his voice.


“Got the hell out of there,” Lee practically yelled, looked around as his voice was loud enough to have attracted attention, and finished off his drink.  It was almost immediately replaced with a full one.


Chip was starting to get the lay of the land, so to speak.  “So you just tried to stay out of her way?”


“Didn’t work very well.” Lee growled.


“Oh, really?”


“Waited until I knew she was in the Nose before I went back up.”


“Explains why your door was locked the rest of the cruise.  But why the vanishing act at mealtimes?”  Lee grumbled something under his breath.  “Excuse me?  Didn’t quite catch that.”  Chip was trying very hard not to snicker.  He could well imagine Lee’s discomfort, but the situation was quite laughable.


“I said, did you notice anything wrong at dinner that first night?” Lee growled.


Chip shook his head.  “Not a thing, except you barely ate three bites and excused yourself early.”


“That’s because Mrs. Lennox was sitting to my right.  You do not want to know where her left hand was!”


Covering laughter by taking a swallow of beer, another piece of the puzzle fell into place for Chip.  “And that’s where the empty chair was the other night in the Nose.”


Lee looked decidedly embarrassed.  “My little subterfuge with the screw didn’t take as long as I planned.  Took one look at where I was expected to sit and got the hell out of there.”


Chip continued to grin.  “And took out your frustrations on a poor, defenseless bulkhead.”


“Definitely not defenseless,” Lee muttered with a glance at his bandaged left hand.


“What did you tell Doc?”


“Something about zigging when I should have zagged.  He didn’t buy it for a second.”  Lee gave Chip one of his through-the-lashes, sheepish little grins.


“You never get away with lying to him,” Chip observed dryly.


“Your point?” Lee grumbled, but Chip saw the corners of his mouth twitch.


“Just that he came back to the Nose snickering.”


“He would!”  Lee was frowning again, and it was Chip’s turn to grin.  He loved watching those two ‘do battle’.  As did the rest of the crew, but Chip didn’t think they understood totally what was behind it the way Chip did.


One of the things Chip had always admired about Lee, from their first days at Annapolis, was the younger man’s innate ability and tact when it came to dealing with people.  Anybody.  Where others would get angry with the idiots, or fearful of officers, or whatever the case may be, Lee just always seemed to deal with the person in a calm, respectful way.  Didn’t keep him from blowing off steam later.  Tonight’s little episode was a perfect example of that.  But Lee normally didn’t let people get to him.  Unfortunately, that had worked in another way – a way Chip had always felt detrimental to his friend.  While Lee rarely let people get under his skin, he also rarely let anyone get truly close.  With his easy style most people never realized just how much Lee kept himself insulated.  It took a great deal to ‘earn’ Lee’s respect enough that friendship could follow.  Dr. Will Jamison was one of the few people who had managed to get through that wall.  The almost constant bickering between the two notwithstanding, Doc was one of the few people Lee would totally relax around.


Chip also knew that Doc understood how special his standing was with the younger man; knew that it was that special bond which allowed the two to go toe to toe – frequently.  Without it, Lee would just clam up and ‘handle’ Doc the way he did everyone else outside his private circle.  Lee would accept the teasing, because of who was doing it.


“What did he say?” Lee now asked cautiously.


“Nothing.  At least then.  Saw him the next day, heads together with the Admiral.”  Chip got dismayed when Lee lowered his head almost shamefully.  “I still don’t know why you didn’t just tell Mrs. Lennox to keep her hands to herself – preferably in front of her husband.”  Lee looked stricken, and Chip took pity on him.  “Yeah, yeah, I know.  Not your style.”


“On top of which, she made a point of reminding me at the reception that her husband chairs the Appropriations Committee.  I rat, she tells him who knows what lies.”


“Don’t think that’s going to be a problem.  By the time they left the boat, the Admiral had Senator Lennox eating out of his hand.”


“At least something went right.”  They were both silent for a bit.  Chip could finally make sense of his friend’s strange behavior.  Not wanting to create a problem for Nelson, Lee had chosen to simply stay quiet and except whatever heat the OOM chose to dish out rather than risk NIMR not getting the funding they counted on.


But that still left a few unanswered questions.  “So, why the tantrum?” Chip asked softly, pointing to what little change remained on the table.


Lee gave his friend another sheepish little grin.  Chip knew Lee well enough that he could tell the alcohol was starting to have an effect.  Far from drunk, Lee’s eyes weren’t focusing as sharply as they normally did.  If Chip was going to get any more straight answers it would have to be fairly soon, before Lee had any more to drink.  As Lee felt himself start to lose control, he would stop talking.  “Ski call you?”


“He was sure you hadn’t seen him.”  Chip, however, wasn’t surprised.  Lee had a habit of knowing what was going on around him.  Even if he was all but unconscious!  But it reminded him of his earlier thought.  “How’d you know about this place, anyway?  Definitely not your usual kind of hangout.”


“Precisely the reason.  Needed a place to meet an ONI contact one night.”  Chip growled into his beer mug as Lee gave him a small smile.  Chip had no love for that particular agency, and made no effort to hide the fact.  Now he watched the small grin turn to a look of resignation, and Lee said quietly, “Better order a pot of coffee and another plate of taquitos.”




“Seems Kowalski wasn’t the only one with “Crane Watch” this evening.”


Chip turned and spotted Admiral Nelson standing by the end of the bar.  “Sharkey?”


“Had to be.”  As Chip signaled the waitress, Lee reached out and shagged another chair.  “Think it’s going to be a long night.”


“And whose fault is that, junior?”  Chip meant the comment to lighten up Lee’s suddenly morose attitude but it seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Both men started to stand as Nelson approached the table with his own glass of amber liquid.  The Admiral waved them down, and sat himself.  He didn’t say anything for a moment, seeming to study his two senior officers.  Chip met his gaze openly.  The waitress came with a pot of coffee, three cups, and the plate of appetizers and salsa.  As Lee made no move toward the pot, Chip poured a cup and set it in front of his friend, finally realizing that the dark head was still lowered.  Lee wasn’t meeting Nelson’s eyes.


The Admiral was the first to break the silence.  Setting down his glass, he picked up one of the taquitos, studied it a moment, then dipped it into the salsa and took a bite.  Chip grabbed a couple himself, noticing as he did that Lee finally picked up the coffee cup, watching what was happening through lowered eyelashes.  Once he polished off the rest of the appetizer, Nelson looked at Chip.  “Is he drunk?” he asked, not unkindly, nodding toward Lee.


“Not so you’d notice, Sir.”


“Good.  Because I would like a few answers.”


There was a croak from the corner.  Chip turned to see Lee take a swallow of coffee, and try again.  “Sorry, Sir.  No excuses, Sir.”  Lee seemed to be speaking to a point below Nelson’s left shoulder.


Chip saw Nelson’s lips twitch before replying quietly, “I didn’t ask for excuses, Commander.  I would like an explanation of your actions this last cruise.”


“Would you like me to leave, Sir?” Chip asked carefully.


“I assume you’ve already discovered the answers,” Nelson said, with a small grin for his XO.


“Most of them, Sir.”


“Then he won’t be revealing anything he doesn’t want you to hear.”


Even as dark as this back corner was, Chip could see Nelson’s eyes sparkle, and he allowed a small grin to show.  “Wouldn’t say he didn’t want me to hear them, Sir.”


“Correction noted,” Nelson said with a grin of his own.  He grabbed another taquito.  “These are quite good.  Don’t think I’ve ever come across them before.”


“Probably not served in your normal circles, Sir.”  He hesitated, then added.  “Neither is this place.”


Nelson dipped another taquito in salsa.  “Was just leaving Lee’s place when Sharkey drove by.  Pulled over and said that he’d run into Kowalski at BZ’s.”  He popped the appetizer in his mouth.  “Any chance Cookie could come up with a recipe for these?”


Chip grinned.  “Shouldn’t be a problem, Sir.  I’ll take care of it.”


Nelson nodded.  “Don’t think I tell you often enough how much I appreciate the excellent job you do as Seaview’s Exec.”


“Thank you. Sir,” Chip said cautiously.  Where is he going with that!


“Along those lines, I have a request.”  Chip saw Nelson’s eyes sparkle again, and a grin threaten to appear.


“Yes, Sir?”


“Do you suppose you could get your CO to at least look at me?”  Chip snorted.  “Whatever was going on, it can’t be that bad.”


“He thinks it was, Sir,” Chip snickered.  There was a definite growl from the corner.


“Ah, good.  We got his attention.”


Chip rarely saw this side of the Admiral.  He knew from stories Lee told that Nelson was perfectly capable of unwinding and enjoying himself.  Chip just wasn’t normally around at the time, and wasn’t totally sure how to handle it.  He did, however, have a fair amount of experience around Lee.  “Not necessarily a good thing, under the circumstances.” 


Nelson raised an eyebrow, but anything he might have said was interrupted by a jump and muffled grunt from Chip.  “Striking a fellow officer is a fairly serious offense,” he finally observed dryly.


“Only if I press charges,” Chip growled, rubbing his shin from the kick Lee had delivered.  “I have other means of retaliation.”


“Don’t suppose one of them would be letting me in on what the problem was the last few days.”


“Sorry, Sir.  Anything I said would be hearsay only.”


Nelson glanced around the bar.  “In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t exactly a court of law.  Are you suggesting that there was a Court Martial offense involved?”


“Only if Lee had done what he wanted to do.”  That comment earned Chip another kick. 


Nelson addressed Lee once again.  “This may not be an official court of law, Commander.  But it’s now my court,” he said firmly, and leveled a hard look into the corner.


“Understood, Sir,” came the reluctant reply.  But there was continued silence from that direction.


“Suppose I start,” Nelson offered.  “You stayed holed up in your cabin, not walking through the boat at all hours as is your habit, avoiding the visitors as much as possible, because…”  Nelson waited, semi-patiently.


“Afraid to come out,” Lee finally said so softly that Chip barely heard it, and didn’t think Nelson had.


Obviously he was wrong, because the Admiral gave his young Captain an incredulous look.  “And here I’ve thought all along that fear wasn’t a word you kept in your vocabulary.  Impetuous.  Bold.  Assured.  Stubborn, definitely.”  He gave Chip a quick smile.


“But you have to understand, Sir,” Chip snickered.  “This was the scariest kind of enemy Lee’s ever come up against.”  He moved his legs quickly to avoid another kick.


“Is that right, Commander?”  Nelson gave Lee a thoughtful look.


Lee gave Chip a glare, then lowered his eyes again before addressing Nelson.  “Mrs. Lennox, Sir.  She…”  He didn’t finish the sentence.


“The Senator’s wife?  She spent most of the trip wandering around getting lost.  Don’t know how many times Chip had to go rescue her.  He certainly didn’t think she was scary.  An idiot, perhaps…”  He gave his XO an indulgent smile.


“He wasn’t trying to keep her hands out of his pants,” Lee choked out.


That stopped the next taquito from being popped into the Admiral’s mouth.  “Excuse me?” he said with a glance between the two younger men.  Chip was grinning, but Lee’s frown only worsened.


“Starting at the reception,” Lee finally got out.  “Kept following me around.  Couldn’t get rid of her.”


“I see.”  Nelson was struggling to keep a straight face.


Once the dam broke, Lee got the rest out in a rush.  “Had to lock my cabin door because I walked in the first afternoon and found her sprawled across my bunk, half undressed.”  Chip figured that the only thing keeping Nelson from guffawing was, he kept stuffing appetizers in his mouth.  “Made sure she sat next to me at dinner, and kept trying to get to my zipper.”  Chip wasn’t as successful at keeping a straight face, and earned another glare from his friend.  “Followed me down to the aft storage locker,” Lee continued, his voice low and dangerous.  “Damn near didn’t get out of there with my clothes intact.”


At that Chip lost it, laughing so hard he nearly spilled the cup of coffee he’d poured for himself.  Nelson looked at him sternly.  “Sorry, Sir,” he apologized.  “Lee hadn’t gotten around to mentioning that one.”


Nelson just nodded and returned his gaze to Lee.  “And you couldn’t handle her in your own inimitable manner because…?”


“She threatened at the reception to tell her husband that I was the one making advances.  He chairs the Appropriations Committee…”  Lee lowered his eyes again, not finishing the sentence.


“So, you just decided to keep quiet and protect NIMR’s funding.”


“Yes, Sir.”


“Didn’t even come to me with an explanation.”


“Nothing you could do, Sir.”  Lee’s voice was back to quiet and miserable.


“Don’t be so sure, Commander.”  Nelson’s voice had turned hard, and it was Lee’s turn to raise an eyebrow.  “In the future, if something like this happens…” he hesitated as both younger men shuddered, “I want you to come to me first.  Is that understood?”


“Yes, Sir.”


“I want to know before a problem gets blown out of proportion on my boat.”  He took both of his senior officers into his gaze.  “You’d be surprised what I can take care of.”  He grinned.  “It would not only save repairs to the bulkhead, but to certain parts of command staff anatomy.”  He leveled a glare at his Captain as Lee’s left hand disappeared under the table.  “Do I make myself clear?”


“Yes, Sir,” came instantly from both younger men, Chip’s accompanied by a muffled chuckle.


“Can’t believe this got past Sharkey,” Nelson mused, voice again softened.


“She was very careful,” Lee offered.


“Apparently, to have avoided the Chief’s attention.”  Nelson popped the last taquito into his mouth, giving the empty plate a long look.


“Would you like me to order more, Sir?” Chip offered.


“No, no,” Nelson sighed.  “I have meetings beginning at 0800 tomorrow.”  He gave Lee another long look, but spoke to Chip.  “You two are excused until 0800, day after tomorrow.”


“Yes, Sir.  Thank you, Sir,” came promptly from his XO.  


Lee’s response was a little slower, followed by a “Sorry, Sir.  It won’t happen again.”


“As long as we can keep Mrs. Lennox off the boat,” Chip snickered.  Lee sent the blond a glare, and Nelson grinned.


“Don’t think that will be a problem.  The Senator told me that his seat is up for re-election this fall, and he’s not running.”


“Hallelujah!” Lee breathed, and the other two chuckled.


Nelson rose, as did the other two, Lee just a shade unsteadily.  Nelson leveled a hard look at Chip.  “I have his keys,” Chip assured the older man.


“And who has yours?” Nelson wanted to know.  Lee chuckled.


“Two beers, Sir.”


“Harrumph,” was all Nelson muttered, before walking out.


“You about ready to get out of here, junior?” Chip asked Lee.  “Got a feeling, after this last week, bed is gonna to feel mighty good tonight.”  The two old friends shared a grimace-turned-grin, and headed home.


Taquitos From the Galley