Sailing on a Wine Dark Open Sea
By Neptune_Rising 70 (aka Lexalicious70)
Waves crashed across the weathered deck of the fishing boat Moray as sleet spattered against the craft’s windshield and rocked the boat sharply to the side. The sky overhead was the color of wet slate, and Bernie wrestled with the wheel, sleet bouncing off the waterproof material of his coat.
“Andy!” He shouted, and his best friend and 3d class engineman Andy Fitzgerald crossed the deck to the wheelhouse, his booted feet slipping on the soaked deck. He climbed up into the wheelhouse, wiping rain and sleet from his face. At 21, the young Massachusetts native was Bernie’s work partner and constant companion as the two worked at the Coast Guard Station Chatham. Just under a year earlier, Bernie, Andy, and two other men had made history when they rescued 32 crewmen off the sinking stern of the T2 tanker Pendleton during one of the worst storms in Boston’s history. Although they were known as local heroes, Bernie preferred life out on the water when he was working and being with his wife Miriam when he wasn’t. Andy was still single, and it often baffled the young boatswain as to why—after all, he was easy on the eyes and had a wry, easygoing manner that made him pleasant to be around.
“It’s really coming down out there, Bernie! Not as bad as it was the night of the Pendleton, but she’s rockin’ and rollin for sure! We gotta find our way back to shore before she breaks up!”
“The tide’s with us, Fitzi.” Bernie reached out and steadied his friend as the fishing boat pitched again. “I think I can get her back in all right.” He tightened his gloved fingers around the wheel as the old boat groaned and shuddered. Bernie and Andy had been down by the docks, securing the Moray and ten other boats like it when it had suddenly snapped its moorings due to the high winds. Both men had managed to jump aboard from the boat docked next to it, but by the time Bernie got the tough little ship under control, the tide had taken it out to the point where he and Andy had no choice to circle around the bay in order to get back to port. The storm had grown considerably worse since then, and Bernie was thankful they didn’t have to cross the bar in order to return.
“It’s gettin’ dark.” Andy said as he pulled off his wool cap and wrung water from it. His short dark blond hair was damp as well, tousled free of its usual careful part and—Bernie was amused to see—curling a bit in the front.
“At least you didn’t lose your hat this time.” Bernie grinned, and Andy gave him a wry, patient smile.
“At least, hey?”
The boat pitched again, knocking Andy off his feet. Bernie reached out and snagged the front of the smaller man’s coat before the force of the pitch could slam him into the wall.
“Damn . . . these boats just aren’t made to ride waves like this.” Bernie said as the wheel bucked and jerked in his hand. Up ahead, in the fading light, a shape loomed up out of the water. He pointed.
“There’s a boathouse straight ahead, Fitz. I think we can moor her up there where the waters aren’t as rough, wait this out.”
“She can’t take another wave like that, that’s for sure.” Andy nodded, and Bernie turned the wheel slightly in order to guide the boat toward the structure. It looked abandoned but serviceable, with two slips and an interior dock that looked to be about fifteen feet wide. Bernie knew from experience that they’d be likely to find rigging, blankets, (clean, God willing,) and maybe even a cot or two so they wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor. Bernie gunned the engine, timing it with the waves like he had the year before with the hardy little 36500, but the old fishing boat had none of the costal lifeboat’s pep, and full dark had come on by the time he managed to guide the Moray into one of the slips. Andy was already on the move, crossing the deck to moor the boat with movements that were quick and sure. Bernie brought out a few lanterns, two jugs of fresh water, and a few cans of canned fruit cocktail and corned beef hash he’d found stowed in the wheelhouse as he made a mental note to reimburse the boat’s owner for them later.
Fitzi’s already cold and wet—can’t let him go hungry too, Bernie thought to himself as he stepped onto the weathered but blessedly dry boards of the boathouse dock. While the structure looked as if it hadn’t been used in some time, it was in good shape. Boat rigging, ring preservers, and tools dotted the walls, along with a gunmetal grey Pyrene fire extinguisher. A cursory search of the boathouse’s only cabinet revealed clean but musty rough green wool blankets, which Bernie shook out.
“Hey Fitzi . . . found us some blankets, and I got some canned grub from the boat.”
Andy lit the lanterns until one corner of the dock was bathed in a muted yellowish light. Bernie watched his fine-boned hands shake as he turned one up and he set down the blankets and food.
“You need to get out of those clothes . . . wrap up in a dry blanket before you get hypothermia.”
“Worked in wet clothes a lot longer than this!” Andy protested, and Bernie glanced out the open slip. The sleet had turned to snow.
“The temp’s dropping and we’ll have to hole up here till the storm passes. Safe berth this time, pal, take advantage. Come on.” Bernie unbuttoned Andy’s heavy coat and pushed it off his shoulders. He wore a long-sleeved denim shirt underneath, and the coat had done little to protect him from the surging waves. His denim pants were also starting to stiffen with frost. Andy wiped a hand across his mouth and Bernie noticed that his younger friend’s lips were trembling as well.
“C’mon, wrap up.” Bernie said, resisting the urge to undo the buttons on Andy’s shirt to help him undress. He flapped open a blanket as Andy worked open his shirt buttons and then stripped off the soaking garment before unbuttoning his pants. He accepted the blanket from Bernie, wrapped it around his shoulders, and then leaned down to undo his frozen boot laces. He pulled off the boots and then his socks before stepping out of his pants, which were so frozen they nearly remained standing on their own before folding up on themselves. Bernie picked up the pants and shirt and stepped up on the Moray’s deck, where he hung them on the thick lip of the wheelhouse. Andy sat down on the thin cot, pulling the blanket closer and wiggling his cold, sore toes to get the circulation moving again. Bernie found a splintered camp stool in one corner and pulled it over to sit next to Andy before he opened the food tins with a handheld can opener he’d found along with the food.
“I know it’s not much but it’ll fill us up enough to get some sleep.” Bernie said as he passed a tin of corned beef and one full of fruit cocktail to Andy. Both men ate with their fingers, scooping out the food by the light of the lanterns. Andy drained the juice from the fruit mix and then set the can aside, licking his lips.
“Miriam’s probably worried.” He said softly. “Bet you dollars to donuts she’s the station, makin’ Cluff he was sorry he ever came to work today.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. But she’s also been a Coastie wife for almost ten months now. She knows what it’s all about.” Bernie tossed the empty corned beef tin aside and regarded his younger friend. “What about you?
“Me? You know I’m crazy about Miriam. I mean jeez, you don’t stand up as a best man for a guy otherwise.” Andy replied, and Bernie shook his head.
“That’s not what I mean, Fitzi. What I mean is, why don’t you have a steady girl? You’re young, you’re coming up through the ranks, you ain’t hard to look at . . . you should have a pretty girl on your arm by now.”
Andy glanced away as he drew the blanket around himself.
“I guess . . . I guess because it’s not in the cards for me, Skip.”
“What do you mean, not in the cards? You want a woman, Fitzi, you have to go to dances, go on dates and all so you can meet the right girl! How many single gals you meet living at Ms. Fisk’s boarding house? She only boards to young single guys like yourself. Maybe if you got a house, started coming to dances with Miriam and me? Maybe she knows someone who’s looking to meet a young fella.”
“Thanks all the same Bernie. Look, I’m pretty tired . . . I’m gonna get some sleep.” Andy said as he turned away, his expression shuttered, and Bernie stood up.”
“Sure thing, Fitz. Take the cot . . . I’ll bunk up in the wheelhouse, it’s pretty dry. Storm should pass by morning, we’ll take her back to harbor then.”
“Ayuh.” Andy wrapped the wool blanket around him, wincing at its roughness, and turned to face the wall. Bernie hesitated and then almost lifted a hand to touch Andy’s shoulder before backing away and making his way up to the Moray’s wheelhouse, where he padded a bench with the other blanket and stretched out as best he could.
Suppose I can’t push him about meeting a girl any more than a boat can push against the tide without some power behind her. That night I met Miriam, I was scared half to death and I think everyone knew it, her included. That’s why she kissed me first . . . but Andy’s brave, braver than a man twice his age, so why is he putting this off like he is?
The answer didn’t come right away, or in the twenty minutes it took Bernie’s mind to shut down enough for sleep. He drifted like a boat off its mooring, never quite falling into deep sleep, and then he sat up all at once thirty minutes later.
Something’s wrong, he thought to himself, and swung his legs down off the bench. His muscles complained but he ignored them as he climbed off the Moray and down into the slip. It was dark and cold, and as Bernie approached the cot where his friend lay, he saw that the metal frame was shaking. The rough wool blanket hadn’t done much to keep Andy warm, and now he was shivering uncontrollably.
“Shit.” Bernie leaned over and squeezed Andy’s shoulder. “Fitzi . . . hey!” He turned his friend over and yanked one of his own gloves off to lay two fingers against Andy’s neck. His pulse was quick—quicker than it should have been. “Andy! Hey!” He slapped one hand lightly against Andy’s cheek, and Andy looked up at him, his dark blue eyes unfocused.
“Bernie. S’cold, Skip.”
“Yeah it is and I could kick myself for leaving you out here by yourself. Thought the blanket would keep you warm. Thing isn’t absorbing heat worth a damn.” He glanced back to the boat, where he’d left his own blanket, and then at Andy’s clothes. They were dry but stiff and cold, and Bernie knew they wouldn’t do much good against the hypothermia Andy was developing. “All right . . .” Bernie pushed a hand through his short hair. “All right, Fitzi, there’s only one fix for this.” He bundled Andy in the blanket and then lifted the younger man into his arms. Andy made a surprised, confused sound as Bernie carried him back to the Moray. He pulled the blanket from the bench and sat down with Andy before reclining the best he could with his friend still wrapped in his arms. The bench was barely big enough for the two of them and Bernie wedged himself against the weathered wood as much he could, turning so that Andy’s back rested against his chest. He pulled the remaining blanket over them and settled one hand over Andy’s heart to monitor his pulse. It was still quick and the young engineman was still shivering, and Bernie prayed that the blanket would help capture his body heat and raise Andy’s temperature. After a moment, Andy made another questioning noise and began to squirm in Bernie’s arms.
“Bernie? What are you—what the hell, what are you doing?” He asked, and the rising anxiety in his tone cut through any confusion he might have been feeling earlier.
“Just lay still, Fitzi. Don’t move, you’re coming down with hypothermia and this is the only way you’re gonna keep warm until daylight.”
“I got the cot, I got a blanket!”
“Yeah, and you also have the shakes and your heart’s pounding faster than a steamship piston!” He tightened his hold on Andy as the smaller man struggled to get free. “You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re sick so just lie still and don’t be a damn fool!”
Andy’s struggles stopped then and Bernie froze, worried that his friend had passed out. He raised his head slightly.
“Fitzi? Hey, you still with me, pal?”
“I c-can’t do this, Bernie. Not with you, please get your hands off me.”
“Not with me? Who else is here to keep you from freezing to death?”
“Bernie please.” Andy said, his voice suddenly thick and hoarse, his heart beating hard under Bernie’s hand. Bernie pressed his palm against Andy’s skin—it was growing warmer under the blanket but he was still shivering.
“What do you mean, not with me?” Bernie asked again, and Andy replied with a noise that sounded like a stammer mixed with a sob. In the silence that followed, a moment of clarity crashed down on Bernie like an unexpected wave and drowned him in a sea of understanding. Knowing that he could lose his friend forever depending on his next move, the young boatswain chose it carefully. He continued to hold Andy, even though everything he had said earlier was fitting into Bernie’s mind so quickly that it was making him feel a little dizzy.
“Okay, Fitzi.” He said at last. “I get what you’re trying to tell me now. It’s the same thing you were saying earlier, right? About finding a woman and it not being in the cards for you?”
It was quiet for several minutes and then Andy spoke into the darkness.
“Please don’t hate me, Bernie. I can take anything except that.”
“It ain’t in me to hate people. But even if it was, I couldn’t hate you. You’re my best friend. But I gotta ask . . . is this . . . is it me, or is it guys in general?”
“There’s never been any other guys. Just you.”
“Pretty much ever since I met you.”
“I hear what you’re saying, Fitzi . . . but—”
“But Miriam.” Andy replied. Bernie closed his eyes.
Oh cripes, he stood up for me at our wedding. What kind of hell must that have been for him?
“I love her.”
“I know you do, Bernie. That’s why you gotta take your hands off me now. I accepted what I can’t have a long time ago, right around the time you and she started getting serious.”
“Christ, Fitzi, this isn’t a date! If you don’t let me keep you warm you’re gonna freeze before morning. So are you going to let me help you or do I have to pull rank just so you’ll live to see the sun rise?”
“Sun don’t care if I live or die, Bernie.” Andy replied, and Bernie pulled them both into a sitting position before shoving Andy off the bench. The engineman hit the floor of the wheelhouse with a thud, and then he was scrambling to keep the blanket around him as Bernie’s hand locked around his upper right arm and hauled him to his feet. Furious blue eyes, like sunlit ice, blazed down into his own.
“Fuck the sun, Fitzgerald! I care! Are you listening? I care whether you live or die!”
“It’s easy for you to care!” Andy shouted back. All the lethargy and numbness had bled out of his body—now it was starting to flush with emotion and the weight of Bernie’s glare. “Because you can care and then go home to your wife!” Andy pointed in the general direction of the shore of the Cape. “You don’t have to care and want at the same time because I’m not what you want! I’m not! And I won’t be!”
“You—” Bernie’s big hands fisted in the blanket and then his furious expression was filling up Andy’s field of vision. Andy flinched in anticipation of the punch in the jaw he knew was coming but then the world shifted sideways and a sound like waves pounding against Chatham Bar filled his ears as Bernie kissed him with a fierceness that made him numb all over again. He felt the hem of the blanket slip against his lower back as Bernie shoved it off him and he moaned against his friend’s lips. Bernie pulled back and Andy blinked up at him as a heat filled his body, pooling in his groin and then spreading throughout his body like a fast-moving storm cloud.
“Skip—” He hitched the word out and then cupped Bernie’s face with both hands to kiss him, tasting his lips in a way that was more arousing than any of the dozens of fantasies he’d had in his narrow bed at the boarding house in the middle of the night. Bernie stood as if stunned for a few moments and then his big, rough-skinned hands were everywhere—at his shoulders, trailing down to his narrow hips and then up his back to the nape of his neck to linger there and make him shiver. Andy began to unbutton Bernie’s flannel shirt and then Bernie was pushing him back slightly to pull it, the tee, and the A-shirt beneath it off. The skin of his chest was winter pale and divided by a light brown trail of hair that ran between his pecs, broke briefly at his belly, and then appeared again only to vanish into the hem of his denim pants. It was warmer in the wheelhouse of the Moray than in the slip and getting warmer, and then Bernie was stripping off his pants and pulling Andy down onto the rough mass of the two wool blankets. Andy found himself on his back, breathless as Bernie’s lips found his neck. Prickles of sensation spread along his skin like frost on a windowpane.
“Time for talking’s done, ya hear?” Bernie said. “It’s done, so shut up.” His lips left Andy’s neck and blazed a trail down his chest, where he kissed one nipple and then the other. Andy slid his hands into Bernie’s tousled hair and tried not to moan as the other man caught one between his lips and began to suck on it. The ministrations went straight to his cock, which hardened against Bernie’s thigh. A hand trailed down and wrapped around it, and that crashing sound began in Andy’s ears again, only this time it began to rise in rhythm, like the pulsing of waves built by a storm. A broad thumb slicked over the tip, adding to the sweet friction, as he felt an equally strong pulse against his inner thigh as Bernie pressed against him.
True to his word, Bernie didn’t speak another word as they rocked against each other and the tension mounted. Andy groaned, his breath coming in sharp gasps as he felt his body coil like a spring wound much too tight. He arched up into Bernie’s hand, slick with his own fluids, and then the tension reached its peak and the demanding hand of orgasm pitch-pulled him into a sea of sensation that threatened to drown him with its intensity. As if from a great distance, he heard Bernie grind out a curse and warmth spread across his thigh. Everything seemed to jump from their defined edges and lose their sharpness, and then it was all fading away. Conscious thought seemed to crawl slowly back into Andy’s mind, but even as it did, his endorphin-drenched body demanded rest and he closed his eyes, protected from everything by the solid curve of Bernie’s naked frame.
The sound of the Moray’s motor woke him several hours later, about an hour before sunrise. The bay was calm and his clothes lay beside him in a silent request. He climbed from the blankets, wiping a hand across his eyes, and saw Bernie at the wheel of the boat as he guided it out of the slip. Andy dressed quickly and as he tightened the laces on his boots, Bernie glanced at him over his shoulder. Andy felt his cheeks warm, but then the tension left his body as his friend smiled at him.
“Looks like the storm’s over.” Bernie said as Andy came to stand next to him. The water was wine-dark this time of morning, the lights of the bay guiding them in.
“Looks that way.” Andy nodded. His shirt and overshirt were cold but dry, and he pulled them a bit closer. “Listen, Bernie . . .”
“Time for talking’s over, Fitzi.” Bernie glanced at him. “But I’ll say this to you—caring isn’t as easy for me as you think. I love my wife, and I’ll keep on loving her, but things ain’t so black and white anymore.”
“Then what are we gonna do, Bernie?” Andy asked, and his friend reached out and took his hand, giving it a squeeze.
“We’re gonna do like we did that night at the Pendleton—watch out for each other and figure out the way together. After all . . . what do they know, right?” Bernie turned the boat slightly as the lights from Chatham Pier grew brighter and more defined.
“Only we know which way we’re headed.”