The lone figure sat on the rock jetty, staring out over the Channel. In his hand, something silver glittered in the sun, and almost absentmindedly he slid it through his fingers again and again. He sat in the sun, his jacket pulled tightly around him, the collar up to stop what he perceived as wind whipping around him. It was, in truth, a warm day in Santa Barbara, but he couldn't feel the warmth. He was cold. The doctor had told him that it was too soon to be out too much, but he couldn’t stand being indoors any longer. He had to get out in the sun, away from the prying eyes, the whispers, the looks. Again, it was his perception, not the reality of things, but it didn’t make it any less real to him. His right foot still sported bandages from the skin grafts, as did his left hand and part of his cheek. He was lucky, though. He’d had a full recovery. The doctor told him that he'd been lucky he hadn’t lost any limbs or any part of one. He’d had some bad damage to the skin on both hands, and feet, but the limbs remained intact, and skin grafts were all he had to deal with.
All. He silently cursed. That was a misnomer if there ever was one. He dared anyone who told him that it was ‘all’ he had to deal with to deal with it themselves…
Damn, he was getting downright mean. In the days and weeks since he been ‘recovered’ from the mission that had been such a failure for him, everyone was telling him how lucky he was. Well, he certainly didn’t feel lucky. All he felt was failure and pain, and both of them were constant reminders of what had happened. And there was also confusion. When he’d woken up, really woke up, and was aware of his surroundings, Lee Crane was at his side, sleeping, but keeping the constant touch that he’d been subliminally aware of. He’d still been in much pain then, but it wasn’t like the unbearable pain when he’d finally asked Jamie to make the pain stop. He'd been aware of how sore his throat was, of the dressings and tubes, and of the presence of his ‘brother-in-arms’.
term somehow was misleading. Lee was his brother in every way
but shared parents, making it much more than 'arms'. They’d shared shed blood, been through a great deal with one
another. But since the time that Lee had returned home with him in their Plebe
year, for the holidays, he’d known that their connection would always be deep.
So, when Clarry had more or less ‘adopted’ him, and Joe had done the same, well, Chip knew then
that they would be brothers for the rest of their lives.
He hadn’t known back then, much less ever imagined, that they would be serving together on ‘Nelson’s Folly’, as Seaview had been called in the early days of her design and development. He’d never even considered that he would have had the input into her design and development that he’d had, never dreamed he’d be a plank owner, and never, never imagined that one day, Lee Crane, his best friend and brother from the Academy, would be her Captain, and he would be her Exec. When Nelson had rescued him from the desk job at the Pentagon, Chip knew he was in for the adventure of his life, but he really had no clue what that would mean to him personally, or professionally.
The men and women of NIMR had become his second family, and while nothing and no one could replace Clarry and Joe Morton and his sisters, the family that Harriman Nelson had created at NIMR was what made it 'home' to him.
He looked out at the ocean, somewhat surprisingly calm for the time of year, and watched the swells of the indigo water rise and fall in a rhythmic pattern of the tides. The surface of the Pacific glittered as the sun caught the myriad of prisms the water created with each movement, looking as if it were an unending sheet of dazzling crystals being slowly rippled. He moved slightly, and pulled his jacket closer, looking down at the medal in his hand.
He didn’t understand its presence on his rack, and when he’d asked Lee about it, he'd had been uncharacteristically evasive. He told him when he’d recovered, he’d explain it. Well he was recovered, or at least pretty much so, and it still wasn’t explained. He looked out again, and his thoughts went back, not to the incident that had brought him here, but to another one, years earlier, when he was still at the Academy…
Brigade Commander Lee Crane sat at his desk, studying for his Submarine Design Analysis final. He ran his fingers through his hair, what little there was of it, wondering how he was going to pass it at all, much less get the ‘A’ he needed to finish at the top of the class at commissioning. If he hadn’t been called away on that ‘small assignment’ for the Office of Naval Intelligence, he wouldn’t be in this situation. Then again, they did ask, it wasn’t orders, and he was aware that it had been something ‘special’ that they needed him for over his spring break. What he hadn’t anticipated was the task running past spring breaks and into class time. ‘His’ middies had been told he had a critically ill relative, and his Brigade XO would handle all problems for his short absence, even when the absence lasted two weeks longer than it was supposed to. The Supe wasn’t pleased, but even he admitted that ‘Orders are Orders, even when they come in the form of a request.’ and Firstie Crane was in the Navy, so when all was said and done, those seeing his proclivities for the other kind of Naval work had taken the young man and had him do a mission for them. Returning to his studies, tired and ten pounds lighter than when he’d left, his best friend had at first razzed him, and then sat down with him and told him what he thought of ‘undercover work.''
Morton hadn’t been kind in his evaluation, and in fact, was blistering at times. Crane had told him it was a ‘one time deal’, at which point Morton had snorted loudly. “They’ve got you, pal. Hook, line and sinker. And they won’t be letting go without a fight. I swear to God, I don’t know what comes over you at times, Lee. Whether it's sports or some kind of a challenge or this…you take too many goddamn risks. It’s as if you don’t give a shit about yourself at all. You look like hell, you’ve got two weeks of class to make up, and you’ve got to keep that average up there if you want to keep your berth at the sub school! You're goddamn lucky I’m your XO and there haven’t been any problems with the brigade while you were gone. You’ve got to get back into the swing of things here.”
Crane smiled back at him, a smile that was all knowing and completely innocent, yet his eyes were telling a different story than the words the mouth was spouting. “Look, Chip. I didn’t want to go, but I really didn’t have a choice. I don’t like that kind of work, it's too grey for me. I don’t like grey, I’d like things in black and white. And by the way, I did tell them what I felt, when they asked, as if it matters one way or the other. You know that old saying, ‘the good of the many exceeds the good of the one or the few…’ I didn’t really have a choice.’
Morton blew up at him, “Yes, you fucking did. You could have said no. Simple, two letters. N. O. No. They didn’t order you, they asked you, goddamnit! You should have said no!”
“I couldn’t, Chip. It was orders, not a request. When the ONI office asks, it's orders, whether it says so or not. You don’t say no to orders.”
Morton threw his hands in the air in exasperation. “Damnit, Lee, you haven't even been commissioned yet and they've got their hooks in you. I give up, Lee. You’re gonna do what you want to, no matter what.”
Quietly, “Chip, it was the right thing to do. To go, I mean. It was right. It was a success, so all I have to do is make up the work, which I will…”
“And if you had gotten hurt? What then? Could you make up the work, graduate, get commissioned, and get your berth at Groton?”
Lee smiled at his friend, and it was an enigmatic smile. “Let’s just say that I believe that I had some help… from someone with a few connections.”
Chip looked at him, puzzled. “What?”
He tapped the silver chain he wore, “This. ‘Pops’ DeLuca, the man I used to deliver groceries for, gave it to me as a going away present. It’s a medal of St. Christopher. Patron of Travelers. ‘Pops’ said I’d be doing a lot of traveling, and I’d need someone to watch out for me. I don’t question people like ‘Pops’. I just believe. So far, so good...” He sighed, “We’ll have to see what the future brings…”
Chip shook his head, and sat down to crack his own books, and study for the final in the Brigade Commander’s suite…
Chip looked at the medal in his hand. He remembered getting a letter from Lee, after he’d been pulled off the Halibut for another cloak and dagger escapade, and how Lee had told him that he’d lost ‘Pops’ medal. He’d told Chip how upset he was about it, but he had no idea where it’d been lost. Fate, in the person of Marco Rodriguez had replaced it on yet another mission, and Lee had managed to keep that medal since then. Chip knew, no matter how close he and Lee were, that Lee would be loath to part with his. So, as he gently fingered the medal, Chip was puzzled. Very puzzled.
So engrossed in his own thoughts, he didn’t hear the footsteps on the rocks behind him, and started when a soft voice said, simply, “Care for some company?”
“Geez!! Trying to kill me or something?”
Lee Crane laughed a low laugh, “Nope. You and I do that well enough without help, thank you. Seriously, care for some company, or do you want to be alone?”
“Hey, pull up a rock, any rock… make yourself comfortable…”
Crane dropped down on the jetty next to his friend, and for a long while, they sat in comfortable silence. Finally, Chip held the St. Christopher medal out to Crane. “Care to explain?”
“Gift from a friend. One that cares a great deal.”
“I don’t buy it. There’s more to it…”
“Mmm, not really. Rod came in, that first night, after we’d
gotten you back. He was blaming himself… for his lack of thought.”
“Lack of thought?”
“Yeah. Since that little escapade in San Dominguez, when Rod gave me this…” He pulled out his own medal, that glinted in the brilliant sun, “… he always thought that you also need some ‘protection’, but he just never gave it to you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m generally not the one who goes traipsing off hither and yon on ONI assignments!”
Lee let a low chuckle escape, “Nope…no, not you, Mr. Morton. All you do is pick up the slack when the Captain's away, and if he can’t go on a mission, or whatever...there you are, the ever faithful XO, jumping in. No, you don’t need any Higher Power’s help at all. You’re always perfectly safe!”
Reluctantly, Morton slowly acquiesced. “I see what you mean. I suppose it’s like the pot calling the kettle black. I guess I do my share. But…it’s only my job.”
Lee laughed aloud, the sound carrying far over the water. “C’mon, Chip! It’s me you're talking to, remember? Lee Crane. I know you! Hell, I’ve known you for too many years to count by now. You may hate it and you don't want to admit it either, you know...but if it's ‘right’, you’ll jump in just like me. That’s why you got hurt this time. You had to jump in ahead of me. Because that idiot at the SECNAV’s said, ‘This isn’t ONI…simple Polar Ops’… and my XO says ‘I can do that!’ and …” Crane’s voice got seriously quiet, as he put a hand on Morton’s shoulder, “Don’t ever do this to me again, brother… I don't know if I can take it..."
Morton turned his head, and blue eyes locked amber-hazel in a tight gaze for a few moments before he spoke, “Well, you will, and so will I, and the bad thing is, we’ll do the watches at the side of the rack, and as long as we recover, we’ll go do it again.”
Crane shook his head, “I hope it never gets like this one.
Man, it hurt too much, brother. You, me, the OOM, the men… I hope it doesn’t.”
He looked at the medal in Morton’s hand. “Maybe, The Saint
will help…you gonna wear it?”
Chip nodded, reached in for the chain that he wore his dog tags on, and snapped it on it, tucking the chain and medal back under his shirt. “I guess we all need a friend up there… why not? He seems to always bring your ass home…”
Lee smiled again, and stood, extending a hand to Chip. Chip reached for it with his right hand, holding the left slightly against his side. “Now, let's go back ‘home’. There’s pizza and beer at my place with your name on it.”
Morton grinned, “One with everything on it, I hope. And you’re not gonna let Jamie know, right? I’m supposed to be on his damn regimen for another week.”
“Hey, don’t worry. He won’t ask and I won’t tell, I promise. We gotta keep our doctor guessing once and a while…”
Chip nodded, and they walked down the beach in companionable silence, as brothers are wont to do…
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