Rating: M

Spoilers: Through 14

Disclaimer: Not mine, not making any money.


Make Time Stop

And I was lost for words in your arms

Attempting to make sense of my aching heart

If I could just be everything and everyone to you

This life would just be so easy

Not enough time

For all that I want for you

Not enough time for every kiss, and every touch

And all the nights

I wanna be inside you

We will make time stop for the two of us

Make time stop and listen for our sighs

Not enough time

For all that I want for you

Not enough time for every kiss, and every touch

And all the nights

I wanna be inside you

Make time stop

Make time stop

In our fight against the end

Making love we are immortal

We are the last two left on earth

And I was lost for words in your arms

Attempting to make sense of my aching heart

If I could just be everything and everyone to you

Not enough time

For all that I want for you

Not enough time for every kiss

Not enough time for all my love

Not enough time for every touch

Make time stop

I wanna

Make time stop

Not enough time

For all that I want for you

Not enough time

Not enough time for every kiss, every touch

And all the nights I want to be inside you

Not Enough Time, INXS


I stood in the parking lot of Stephanie's apartment complex in Point Pleasant. I had never been so unsure of a woman, or of myself, in my life. Six days have passed since I received my mission offer and agenda, and my response is expected by 0900 today. I had waited to see if Stephanie would contact me prior to the deadline but she hasn't. My time is running out.

I climbed the stairs with the enthusiasm of a prisoner approaching the gallows. She had been very specific about giving her space and not applying pressure. I justified in my mind that this situation was vastly different and overrode her request for privacy and solitude.

This situation was somewhat similar to what had happened almost nine months ago, or more to the point, what hadn't happened. I had accepted my last mission and did not let Stephanie know that I would be gone or for how long. While I know that one specific thing was not what pushed her over the edge emotionally, I'm sure it was a strong component. I was supposed to be one of her closest friends, a person she had come to rely on, a person she had learned to trust the most. In her eyes, I had abandoned her. In a way, I suppose I had.

Once I was standing in front of her door, I reached into a pocket of my cargo pants and pulled out my picks and set to work as soundlessly as possible. Her car was in the parking lot and all of her lights appeared to be out. It was just after 2400 and it looked, at least from the outside, as if she were asleep.

The locks gave me minimal difficulty and the chain even less so. I let myself in and closed the door, relocked it, and stood for a moment to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Within a minute, I was able to make out the forms of her sofa on the far wall, an entertainment center opposite it and a coffee table in between.

I heard a slight rustling coming from what I presumed was the kitchen and then a rhythmic squeaking. Rex was on the job.

I toed off my boots in the foyer and stalked back to the only interior door in the apartment. It swung open with the small sound of the bottom of the door snagging on high pile carpet.

The cheap metal blinds in her bedroom did little to block out the security lights from the parking lot. Stephanie was lying spread-eagle on her belly with one arm thrust under her pillow and her other arm extended straight out to the side. Her hair obscured over two-thirds of her pillow where it fanned out behind her head. I found myself wondering if this would be the last time I would see her this way.

Just as I finished that thought, I noticed her stirring. She flipped her head in the other direction, facing away from me, and went to tuck her extended arm under her pillow. I thought she was still asleep, but a few moments later she lifted her head a few inches and held it slightly elevated as though she thought she had heard something. I knew she hadn't: I wasn't even breathing.

In a scratchy voice, she said, "Ranger?"

I moved into the room and went to the chair she had sitting between the window and the bed. "It's me, Babe." I unbuckled my gun belt and laid it on the floor beside the chair then lowered myself into the seat.

She had rolled to her side then pushed up into a sitting position, scooting back against her headboard and clutching a pillow to her chest. Even in the ambient light leaking through the blinds, I could see her frown in confusion.

"Babe, I know I'm not supposed to be here, but I have to talk to you."

She stared at me as though I were an apparition.

She slowly shook her head from left to right and said, "No…it's not…I was going to come see you in the morning."

"Why?"

"I…why are you here?"

"Babe…" I shifted forward in my seat then shifted back again. Shit, this was hard. This felt like a fucking meeting, or worse, a prelude to our infamous 'deal' and nothing could be further from the truth. I needed to have a conversation with my lover; one of the most important conversations of my life.

"Babe, can you come sit here with me or let me lie there with you? I promise not to…I need to hold you when we have this conversation."

I saw a moment of panic in her eyes and then it was gone. Her eyes went back and forth between the old rocker I was sitting in and her bed. She seemed to be making calculations in her head then finally climbed from the bed.

I sat up and dropped my arms to the sides to make room and she climbed up sideways into my lap. I felt such a surge of possessiveness when I noticed she was sleeping in one of my shirts.

Once I had wrapped one arm across her shoulder and curled the other across her hip, she laid her head where my shoulder and neck joined and I heard her inhale deeply. I was unable to stop myself from pulling her into me tightly and burying my nose in the top of her hair, taking in her scent.

We sat there in silence for what had to be twenty minutes. I was loath to break the moment, but we had to talk.

"Babe," I whispered.

"Hmmm?"

"Babe, I've been offered a mission."

She tensed slightly and pulled her head back fractionally to look at me.

"What do you mean 'offered'?"

I took a moment to frame my answer. "Stephanie, every time I go 'in the wind' it isn't always because I am ordered to. Sometimes, yes, I have no choice. Other times, I am given options."

I gave her a moment to digest that.

"I signed a five year contract with the government a month before I met you. When I negotiated my contact, I made certain stipulations and addendums that would allow me some…options."

She squinted at me. "I don't understand."

I heaved out a sigh. "Babe, I really can't explain it to you more specifically than that."

She cocked a brow and said, "Or you'd have to kill me?"

I felt myself chuckle for the first time in what had to be a year. "No Babe, I wouldn't have to kill you, but I'd likely be court marshaled."

She leaned back even further in my lap and I felt her absently fingering the tie that held my hair back. I know she had no idea she was doing it but I prayed she wouldn't stop. It felt like the last horrific months had never happened, they had melted away and left the two of us right back where we had started, or better yet, where we wanted to be.

"I thought you were a civilian."

"No," I said softly.

"You're active duty?"

"No."

"You're in the reserves?"

"Babe, guys like me fall into kind of a gray area-"

I heard her mutter something about "stupid gray areas" and it "not surprising her".

I pushed my arm further forward around her shoulder and twisted my wrist to check the time on my dive watch.

"Babe, I've got exactly eight hours and twenty minutes so I've got to cut to the chase. Let me get through the hard part first and then when I'm done, if you have any questions, if I can answer them, I will."

She looked searchingly into my eyes then sighed and laid her head back where it had been before.

"I've been offered a mission, but it is voluntary. They need an answer by 0900 tomorrow-actually today."

"Why didn't you call me?"

"Babe."

"Okay. Go ahead."

"Like I said, it's voluntary. It could last anywhere from six weeks to four months. I know some of the details about the mission and it appears to fall into the 'low to moderate' risk category. You need to keep in mind that the term 'low risk' is somewhat of a misnomer. It is not the same thing as safe."

I felt her nod her understanding against my chest.

"If I take this mission, it would fulfill my contractual obligation and any remaining months on my five years would be null and void. I'd be out. For good."

I felt some tension leave her body and I regretted that I had to keep on talking.

"So you're going to take the contract?"

"Babe, I have to give you the full picture before we…before I decide what I'm going to do."

"There's more?"

"Yes." I know I sounded morose but I couldn't muster up any enthusiasm to follow this discussion to its natural conclusion. "Babe, I could decline the contract. I would still be "on call" for another eleven months. There is a chance that I could receive assignment orders and I would have no choice. That assignment could even come in the last month of my contract and there's no guarantee of its duration. Some mandatory missions can last from six months to two years. It doesn't matter to the government if the mission surpasses the length of my contract, just as long as the orders are given within the time frame of the contract.

"I have only been ordered to duty twice in the last four years. Should I decline the current offer, I'd say it's about a fifty-fifty chance that I might receive orders in the next eleven months and I would have no choice. The risk level could be anywhere from 'low/moderate' up to 'high risk'. The only thing I can assure you is I won't be asked to do is a suicide mission. Some high risk missions seem like suicide missions but technically, they are not. At the same time, they might just decide to order me on a mission similar to the one I'm currently being offered. Or they might not call me to duty at all. There's no way to predict what will happen."

At some point during my monolog I could feel her start to shiver. By the time I finished my last sentence, she was virtually vibrating with nervous energy or adrenalin. I pulled her further into my chest and placed a soft kiss on the top of her head. I took my hand from her hip and traced the length of her arm until I caught her hand in my palm. She let it lay there passively while I traced nonsensical designs on the back of her hand with my thumb.

She took a shaky breath and said, "I…what are you telling me?"

"Babe, I'm asking you to help me with this decision."

She pulled her head back up and tried to tug her hand back but I wrapped my fingers closed around her hand and held tight. I refused to let her pull back from me, pull back from this. Her eyes, even in shadow looked at me accusingly.

"Ranger, this is your decision, not mine."

"Babe…all of my life I have had only myself or the government to answer to. I preferred it that way. Somehow, you came along and….shit. You're important to me, Steph. You have to know you're the most important person in my life. Over the last several months I've come to realize that my actions, whether I mean them to or not, have an effect on you. And all of your actions have a very profound effect on me. I don't care what we call what we have between us but I want…no, I need to give this choice to you."

She was quiet a long time and I stroked her hand and rocked the chair while she tried to get her trembling and her thoughts under control. Finally, she said, "If I weren't in your life at all or if we were really just friends, would you have re-upped when this contract was over?"

I had thought about that very question a million times. I tried to phrase my answer very carefully. "Four years ago, I had actually requested a ten year contract but apparently there is no such animal. Six months ago, I was considering renewing it." I felt her cringe. I didn't say it to hurt her, but it was the truth. "Right now…I wish I'd never signed the damned thing at all."

So softly, I almost didn't hear her, she said, "I wish that too."

I brought the hand up that had been stroking hers and cupped her cheek, pulling her face up to look at me. "Babe. What do you want me to do?"

Her eyes instantly pooled with tears and one fat drop rolled down her cheek. She looked at me owlishly and said, "You want me to choose?"

I rubbed her tear away with my thumb only to watch it be replaced by another. "Babe, you are the other half of me. I no longer live my life only for myself. It's your choice."

Hoarsely, I added, "I'll do anything you ask of me."

She started mumbling to herself and I knew she was unaware she was speaking aloud. "I can't…you can't…God, I love him too much! I can't do this…how can he ask me to do this? How can you ask this of me…it's too much!"

I wrapped both arms around her so tightly, I'm not sure she was able to breath. I'd never heard her say she loved me. I suppose I had sensed on a visceral level that she felt love for me but to hear it… Christ, it felt so good, so gratifying. I physically felt as if some missing piece of me clicked into place. Then I felt suddenly guilty for enjoying the sensation when she was so obviously in pain with what I'd asked of her.

I was overwhelmed by the depth of her feelings for me.

I tucked her head far enough into my neck so I could place my lips against her ear. "Shhh, Babe, shhh, it's okay… it's okay. Please… don't cry."

Her tears were falling silently but I could feel her body shuddering to repress her emotion. Why is it, even when I try to do the right thing, I inevitably hurt her?

"Dios, Babe, please stop." God, I sounded almost pathetic. I was begging, but if she kept on, I wasn't sure that I wasn't going to start crying with her.

She sniffed back her tears and said in a garbled voice, "But what if this is the mission you were meant to go on and you come back safe? Or what if I chose for you to take your chances for the next eleven months and you get deployed and you get killed? I couldn't live with myself, Ranger! This is like fucking Sophie's Choice! Don't make me do this!" Her voice had started off meek and uncertain but by the end; it was nothing short of desperate and afraid.

I lifted my hand to stroke her hair over and over and said, "Babe, shhh. My fate is not your responsibility. All we can do is go over the risks and the benefits and try to make the most intelligent decision based on-"

"God damn it, I love you Carlos! Stop talking so analytically! This is your life we're talking about! Our life-"

I kissed her. I didn't give a damn about what else she had to say, I had to kiss her. I had to seal those words between us, never to let them fall away. I wanted those words to live forever on her lips and in her mouth, so they would breathe into me every time she spoke, so they would penetrate me every time we kissed. I kissed her in benediction. If I died now, I would regret nothing.

I felt like I had just exhaled a breath I had been holding for years.

I finally pulled away from our kiss and used both hands to skim her hair away from her face, clutching her head as if I held the Holy Grail. I laid my lips against her forehead and whispered brokenly, "I love you."

My lips still pressed lightly to her forehead, I said, "This is our choice. I refuse to willingly leave you. If I get called away, it will be because I was ordered to, it won't be by choice. We may have to live with close to a year of uncertainty, but I can't see it that way. I have never been more certain about the way I feel about this, about you. I can't walk away from you Stephanie."

She raised her hands and clutched my face and offered me a beatific, melancholy smile, her eyes shimmering and bright. "Then don't"


Epilogue

Six months have passed since the night she changed my life, the night she made me whole. It wasn't until she completely accepted me into her life that I realized how hollow I had been. She filled me, body, mind and soul.

Stephanie still works for RangeMan. She has just recently started chasing skips again but is committed to only doing so with her partner, Lester. Stephanie often jokes that I may one day regret that pairing, but I know Stephanie trusts him implicitly and has a bond with him. And even though my cousin can be an incorrigible lech, I trust her. And despite his antics, I trust him. Most importantly, I know the Santos will have her back. But then again, any of my men would.

Santos and Brown have been spending time with her in the gym, training her in self defense. It's true that I encourage her to learn it to keep her safe, but an amazing side effect has been the way it's bolstered her self esteem and confidence.

Her family has slowly come to accept me as a permanent fixture in her life. I'm sure her mother still holds out hope for another big 'Burg wedding, but Stephanie and I are both happy with the way things are right now.

We've discussed the possibility of a child. We've peeked into that doorway and we're both intrigued. I have a feeling when my contract is over, that door will swing fully open.

Her friendship with Morelli has begun again in fits and starts. We've joined him and his colleagues and their spouses and girlfriends several times for pizza and beer at Pino's. I can tell he still feels awkward around her, but from what I can see, he's been nothing but kind to her and I believe he has let go. Word on the street is he has been seeing an attractive paramedic he met a month ago at the scene of a multiple car pile up. She's a single mom. I wish him nothing but the best.

Before the night we came together, I didn't care one way or the other if I would get called in. For those first few idyllic weeks after that night, I prayed that if I were to be called in, it would be weeks or months before it would happen.

After six months passed, I saw that Stephanie was still with me and I stopped bargaining with God. I chose instead to thank him. I thank him for bringing this exquisite, wonderful, benevolent woman to my life. I know absolutely that God created this woman just for me and I humbly accept this gift without questions or stipulations.

Though she has slept in my arms now for 194 nights, I hold her to me each night as if it were our first night together and try not to think that it could be our last. She lives with me now. She lives with me in this building, in this apartment, in this heart.

I know that I have to live for today. I know with absolute certainty that I would take just one day, just this day with her, in exchange for the 10,950 days I have lived without her.

The End!