The small cabin mirror reflected what Nelson most dreaded seeing. A tired old man.
One more year. One more birthday. Birthdays were no longer reason for rejoicing, or even ignoring; they were simply a reminder that time was wearing away ˜ wearing him away ˜ and there was not one damn thing he could do about it.
Today of all days, Lee wasn't there. He'd received a top secret radiogram, not even shown it to Nelson, only saying he'd be back in three days and he'd explain everything then. It wasn't a dangerous mission, at least that's what he'd claimed when pressed, obviously seeing the unspoken concern. 'Oh, don't worry about a thing,' he'd said, with laughter in his hazel eyes.
A chopper had taken him from the surfaced submarine and he'd vanished into the vast blue sky.
Of course it could have been a ruse, he might have been going away to fetch some kind of present, but then he'd have been back by today, and the day was almost gone.
Nelson removed his shirt, preparing for bed. But he stayed before the mirror inside the wardrobe door, the khaki shirt in one hand, trailing on the floor.
Sometimes he hated his body. It was thickening, despite his efforts to keep fit and trim, despite all their sometimes arduous missions. He spent too much time at a desk in his office or in his lab peering through a microscope. Going to seed, that was the only word. There were laughter lines around his eyes that Lee had sometimes said he liked, but when he studied them, Nelson felt no inclination to laugh. They were now simply reminders of age.
Summer and winter was a phrase that came to mind when he thought of them together. Lee was barely past his prime, and he himself was what, middle aged? That was being kind. Surely middle age ended at fifty? So what was he now? He refused to allow the figures to form in his mind. Not sixty, no, that would be Old Age with capital letters, but not far off ˜ not so very far over the horizon.
Self pity, he thought, is not an attractive quality, but still he couldn't leave the mirror. The harsh striplight above it didn't help, throwing the road-map of his lines into sharp relief. Sun and wind had aged his fair skin before its time, and so had life, which he'd lived in both quality and quantity.
A smile quirked his lips as he recalled one of Lee's favourite tricks, making him pose naked in front of the bedroom mirror, telling him he was desirable, gorgeous even, in his best seductive tone ˜ though he took that with a pinch of salt. Maybe, conceivably, he was in the eyes of a lover, but not to his own, scathing gaze.
He would trade a good ten years of his life, maybe twenty, to be tall and elegant like Lee; to feel worthy of all those extravagant declarations of love his captain uttered during their tender moments together.
Nelson sighed and closed the closet door, tossing his shirt into one corner to be collected in the morning. What was a birthday anyway? Just a day no different from any other. Simply one more night with Lee not around, and only the memory of his lover and his good right hand for company.
He donned pyjamas, turned off the overhead light and slipped into his bunk. He had only been there a moment when his comm system buzzed. He jabbed at the button on his bedside panel. "Nelson." It came out as a growl.
"Admiral, this is Morton. Sorry to disturb you. I'm informing you that we're surfacing to make one final check on the periscope mounting repair. It should only take half an hour, then we'll be back on course."
"Do you want me on the bridge?"
"No, sir, it's not necessary. If there should be a problem I'll call you, but I don't anticipate any. Good night, Admiral."
"Thank you, Chip. Good night."
He felt the vessel rise and surface, her engines idling. He didn't feel like sleeping now, alert for even the slightest incident that might cause a problem for his beloved Seaview. After Lee, she was the only thing he lived for.
But five minutes of lying in bed listening to the faint engine vibration with no action to keep him awake was all the Admiral could usually manage, and he drifted away into a vague dream of sunshine and curling waves.
Someone opened the cabin door. Like a cat with one eye ajar, the slight noise made him start fully awake. Although the cabin was in darkness, a crack of light shone in from the nighttime half-lights in the corridor, silhouetting a tall, dark figure.
Nelson sat up abruptly, snapping on his overhead lamp, momentarily dazzling himself and leaving most of the cabin in twilight. "Who's that . . . ? Lee?"
Crane took one step inside and closed the door behind him.
"What? I thought you were ashore. How did you . . .?"
White teeth flashed in the shadows. "Surprise, Harry. Did you think I'd forgotten?"
"Forgotten?" Nelson blinked stupidly.
Lee withdrew his hand from inside his black leather jacket and brought out a small spray of blood-red roses. He stood there grinning, enjoying the moment, looking like an apparition from Nelson's indulgent imagination; lean and handsome in his offshore dark slacks and black jacket with gold epaulettes, black hair damped into short, gleaming curls. The smile was all wickedness and delight.
"Good heavens!" was all Nelson managed for the first moment, then all he could think of were questions. "How did you get back? You did actually leave? What are you playing at? This is all for my birthday?"
"You deserved a special surprise. I asked the chopper to bring me back in a few hours, so you'd be sure I was gone."
"You used a Navy helicopter to ferry you to ashore and bring you back for a game?"
"I did receive a summons from Timms to give him my personal opinion of the flame incident, seeing that he obviously doubted our sanity, and I told him I could fly ashore as long as he made it snappy. I convinced him in ten minutes flat, so I radioed Chip and arranged the surface co-ordinates. I asked him not to tell you and he thought it was a great idea. He knows the date too. He thought you'd appreciate a birthday surprise."
"My officers are nothing better than schoolboys." Nelson suppressed a guffaw of laughter with feigned annoyance.
Lee chuckled. "Now I know you prefer men a little older than that."
"And did Chip see those?" Nelson indicated the floral offering.
"No, I kept them just for you. Or I could go back and give them to him, I suppose, if you're going to be churlish."
Nelson snorted. "They'd be wasted on him. Wouldn't know a rose from a wallflower. Whereas I do." He reached out and took the bouquet, breathing in the heady scent of the dark red petals. "You are such a fool," he said softly, "a wonderful fool."
As he gazed up into Lee's bright eyes, Nelson had to struggle hard to fight his instinct to drag Crane into his bunk and forget the rest of the boat, or even time itself. "For the Lord's sake, Chip knows you've come to my cabin in the middle of the night, and he knows why, if no one else does."
"So what? Live a little dangerously."
"We already do. Damn it, Lee."
"We're both damned. Love damns us to an eternity of needing each other. You know it and I know it, so let's take what we've got. Here and now is all that matters. I'm your birthday present, if you want me. Are you going to unwrap me now?"
"Oh indeed I am. Come here, you foolish man."
As Lee's mouth claimed his, warm and demanding surrender, age was the very last thing on Nelson's mind. He was as young and strong as he needed to be.