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Author's Note: Written for 'Ship Wars prompt #4 "In The Dog House Again".

Counting the Seconds
by LJC

Admiral Pike wasn't there to meet her when the Yorktown docked at Starbase 12.

This was completely understandable, as they had arrived in almost at the end of second shift, delayed by ion storms. It would have been prudent to simply spend the night in her quarters on board her ship, hail him via the dock control in the morning. Perhaps leave him a message so they could arrange breakfast.

After six months patrolling the Klingon-Federation Neutral Zone, often in communications blackout, waiting another six hours somehow seemed to be the very last straw. She had wounded crewmen who needed tending, and she had empty cargo bays that needed supplies. Most of all, she was tired of waiting. She'd left the bridge to Atoa, and covered the distance between the bridge and the forward docking port in brisk measured strides.

Phil, of course, was already there.

"Have you told him yet?" he asked as he helped his chief nurse load a heavily sedated Ensign D'aaang onto an antigrav stretcher for transport to the Medbay.

She shook her head. "I want to do it in person."

"How do you think he'll take it?"

"How do you think?" she snapped, and then immediately regretted her tone. "Sorry. Nerves."

Boyce was sympathetic rather than stung, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder.

The 'lift took her to the top of the base, and she stood outside the sector commander's quarters wishing she'd changed out of her uniform into something more casual. But there was nothing to be done for it, she decided, as she reached for the doorchime.

The doors opened almost before her fingers had left the button. His hair was still wet from the shower, and he wore loose workout pants and a black undershirt.

"Hi," he said as she stepped inside and wrapped her arms around his neck.

"Hi yourself," she said against his mouth.

In her experience, sex complicated things. It brought with it a wealth of expectations and set limits and definitions on even the most casual of relationships.

But sex with Chris was simple. Achingly perfectly simple.

Before the door closed behind her, she had her hands under his shirt, tracing the lines of his body with her fingertips. She walked him backwards toward the bed. When his calves hit the edge, he wrapped his arms around her waist to take him with her as he fell back against the pillows. He looked up at her with a blissed-out smile.

She should have told him then.

Instead, she pulled her uniform tunic over her head, cursing as hairpins caught on the undertunic. He reached up to finish what she'd started and free her hair from its sensible bun. The thick coil of hair uncurled to fall against her neck, still damp from that morning's shower.

He unhooked her bra, and she curved her shoulders forward so that it slipped halfway down her arms.

"Ion storms?" he said against her neck as she tugged her arms through the straps and tossed it to the floor.

"Inconvenient, ill-timed, ill-mannered magnetic disturbances." She spat out each word as if the Universe had done it to them on purpose.

He laughed as he worked on the closure of her trousers, pushing them down her hips.

When she was down to just her plain cotton pants, she straddled him, feeling him half-hard through the loose sleep pants. She pushed his shirt up, swirling her tongue around one of his nipples. She gasped at the friction of the coarse hair of his chest against her breasts as he pulled her mouth back to his, fingers sliding beneath her pants to pull her tight against him.

"Missed you," he said between gasping breaths, and she buried her stab of guilt under the heat rising in her belly.

Afterwards, they lay curled against one another under the sheets. She wrapped her arms around him, resting her head in the crook of his neck. With a sigh, she decided she couldn't put it off any longer.

"They're sending us out on a deep space mission," she said, afraid to look at his face. "Eighteen months, there and back."

There was a long pause, and then he whistled low, his breath puffing warm against her hair. "Eighteen months?"

"Their original request was for two years. I tried to negotiate them down to ten months. But ever since losing the seven ships at Vulcan, Starfleet's been pushing for the Yorktown to cover the Antares' patrol routes. Komack wants us to leave in four days."

He pressed a kiss to her temple. "I'll miss you."

She pushed herself up on her side, frowning. "Chris—you're not listening. Eighteen months at the edges of the quadrant. No coming back here to re-supply, or for shore leave. It'll be a seven months before we're even back in communications range."

"I am listening. What do you want me to say? Don't go?" He frowned. "When Command cuts you new orders, you go."

She rested her chin in her hand. "What are we going to do?"

"We'll figure this out." He shrugged. "We always do."

Frustrated, she lay back against the pillows, staring at the ceiling. "Don't you ever wonder if all this hard work and heartache is worth it?"

There was another long pause. "Do you?"

"Sometimes," she admitted. "When it's months between assignments, and all I can think about is how little time we actually have."

"So we make the best of what time we do have."

"But do we really? When I'm here, we spend nearly all of our time in bed."

He buried his face in her hair. "I'm not complaining about that, exactly."

"Chris, I'm serious. What if this really is just... I don't know, the world's longest shore leave love affair? Do you know in the last year, not counting my shifts and your speaking engagements, we spent a sum total of seventeen days actually together?"

"You've been counting?"

"I count every second. And I have to make this forty-odd hours last for eighteen months. Be enough to survive a year and a half apart." She sighed. "Maybe this is why captains don't have families."

"Except for Bob April, Steve Garrovick, Brit Mendez, Dan Paris, Neche Rabin, Matt Decker—"

"You're keeping a list of married captains in active service?" She sat up and grabbed his black tee-shirt from the floor, pulling it on against the slight chill.

"Those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. Steve and Matt even have kids, you know. So does Rabin—her son David must be three or four, now."

She frowned. "So while I'm debating the relative merits of calling this whole crazy thing off you're—what? Asking me to marry you?"

"I hadn't really planned on doing it like this, but yeah. Actually, I am."

He looked pleased with himself, and she was suddenly seized with the desire to hit him.

"Chris, that's not fair, springing this on me like this."

"Hey—you started it, lady." He sat up, hair sticking every-which-way. It would have been adorable, had they not been in the middle of their first real argument.

"What's so bad about wanting to spend the rest of my life with you, making a home someday, growing old together? Well, older, anyway." He ran his fingers through his greying hair. "Look, I know it's old-fashioned and you've always said you're not the marrying kind. Hell, I never thought I was either. But I also never thought a slug would snack on my brainstem, or they'd kick me upstairs on the eve of my first mission on Enterprise."

He reached for her hand, and she let him hold it between his own. The metal of his Fleet ring warmed with their combined body heat as he gently rubbed her fingers, thumb skating over the bones of her wrist.

"I never thought that I could be this happy. Even when we only get to see each other in the flesh—and I am extremely fond of your flesh—once in a blue moon. I knew what I was getting into when we started this, and I thought you did too. Or was this just a fling for you?"

"You know it isn't," she said, pulling her fingers from his and smacking his shoulder with her open palm.

"Then say you'll marry me. You can become Captain Pike, or I can become Admiral However-the-hell-you-pronounce-your-last-name, and we'll figure out the rest as it comes."

Her eyes burned with unshed tears. "What would getting married change about our current situation?"

"Nothing—except this: it gives you something to come home to. Someone to come home to. It's a promise, it's a commitment. It means I'm not planning on giving up on you, or us, any time soon."

She blinked rapidly, and he swam in and out of focus as tears clung to her lashes. She dashed them away impatiently. He reached out to brush the wetness from her cheek with the ball of his thumb.

"I just don't know if I can keep doing this," she said. "When we started... We'd spent three years apart and it was fine—"

"Three years of seeing your former shipmate once or twice a year isn't the same as three years apart from your lover."

"And every time we are together, it just makes it harder for me to leave. And as much as I want to stay, I can't. I can't turn my back on the Yorktown and my career."

"I wouldn't want you to. You know that."

"So that's it? We're stuck?"

"I've waited my whole life for you. I didn't know it at the time, but it's true. I can wait a year and a half, if you can. You don't have to decide right now this minute. You're right—I'm springing this on you. When you get back, I'll do it right. A ring, down on one knee, the whole nine yards."

"It's not about how you ask me. Or even about you asking me." She stared down at her hands clasped in her lap. "I just don't know."

"Hey, look at me. Look at me." He grasped her chin, lifting her eyes to meet his. "I love you. That's not going to change any time soon."

Instead of warming at his words, she just felt hollow. "I love you too. This wouldn't hurt so much, if I didn't love you. But that doesn't fix anything. It doesn't change anything. It just makes it hurt that much more."

Her voice broke on the last word, and she hated the way she sounded, hated the way he just kept looking at her with love and concern, instead of the anger at the situation that burned in the back of her throat.

"I know," he said, wrapping his arms around her, and pulling her close. "Just tell me you'll think about it?"

She nodded, wanting to yell Why aren't you angry? Why am I the one who's angry? Instead she gave in to the tears that had threatened ever since she'd walked through the door. They slid down her cheeks, scalding hot and burning her lips as she bit them, trying to keep the sobs inside.

He rubbed her back in even strokes until she fell asleep.

But when she woke, the pain was still there—an ache in her chest making it hard for her to breathe.

Pike watched the Yorktown pull away from the docking port, her call letters illuminated by the station lights, and he fingered the small velvet box in his pocket.

She hadn't said yes—but then, she hadn't said no, either. Her promise to think about it had hung like a pall over her leave, making them both tense and unable to simply enjoy each other's company. When he'd kissed her good-bye, beneath the softness of her mouth there was a sense of finality that he tried to ignore.

When he got back to his quarters, he put his mother's ring back in the top drawer where he'd kept it for the last year.

He kept telling himself that he could wait, it would keep, and hoping he wasn't lying.