The front door of the West Eckett Animal Containment and Recovery Center has a sign taped to it that reads, "automatic door-opening mechanism malfunctioning; use manual lever" so Chris yanks on the handle, winces at the squeal of the hinges, and walks in.
"Be right with you!" a woman calls from the back room, then adds quietly to a person in there with her: "Yatto, I told you to oil the door yesterday."
"If I oil the door, we'll have to get one of those door chimes, and I hate 'em," Yatto answers. He sounds like he spends his spare time with his feet propped up on an upturned bucket with one hand around a beer and the other hand tossing peanut shells at the dogs.
Chris can't hear the woman's answer, if she gives one. He crosses his arms across his chest and looks around him. The waiting room is a pale utilitarian construction, shabby but clean, covered all over in scratch marks and informative posters. An overweight or overfluffed cat is sprawled on the front counter, picking burrs from between its toes. It pauses with one paw stuck up in the air and stares at Chris with gold, glassy eyes.
Chris stares back, adamant and non-blinking, until the cat withdraws its wayward limbs and disappears over the edge of the counter. The burnt-orange tip of its tail flicks at him in a salty goodbye and Chris smiles.
The woman in the back room murmurs something about supplementary paperwork and government permissions for inoculations. She appears in the doorway, looking away from Chris into the back room, and says sternly, "End of day tomorrow. Make sure she knows that. Hello, can I help—" She stops short and her face flickers through recognition, annoyance, relief, then back to annoyance (or maybe happiness. It's hard to tell.) Her shoulder wavers an inch from the doorframe, like she'd lean against it for support if no-one was looking.
"Hey," says Chris after the silence goes on a little while.
He can tell the moment when she decides on a plan of action. Her face relaxes into a pretension and her spine straightens up into the posture that comes from riding a horse before learning to walk. "Do you have an appointment?" she asks.
"Uh, no," says Chris. When she walks forward he's startled by the dullness of her hair. She was always sly as redheads go, more strawberry blonde than anything, but now it's more gray than there should be. Chris hopes it's just the overhead lights playing havoc with color.
"You didn't call ahead?" she says with put-upon lack of guile, sitting down at the computer terminal. "Let me just check our records. Name, please?" She's literally giving him the cold shoulder, curling herself inward sightly like he's about to jump the counter.
Which he might do, if this is how they're going to play it. "Elena—"
"Is that your name?" she asks.
Chris can see that she's pulled up some kind of administrative screen. "My name is Alouicious Bandersnout," he drawls, leaning one elbow on the counter.
Elena types in 'Christopher Pike' without comment and Chris determines that they've hit the point of no return. It's like riding out an ion storm: better to go at it full speed ahead than frazzle the engines in reverse. He rests his chin in his hand and prepares to take his beating quietly.
"Hmm," she says, cycling through a few screens in rapid succession. "According to the records we are currently boarding a horse for you, but it appears that the Center hasn't received a call from you in over six months."
"I understand that you have no experiential proof of this," Chris points out, "but space is actually very, very big."
"Oh gosh, I didn't know that." Elena isn't facing him but Chris doesn't need more than the arch of her eyebrow to understand that she's thinking, Don't use that patronizing tone with me. I invented that patronizing tone.
His voice is maybe warmer than the situation warrants when he replies, "When I say we're going out of communication range, we really are outside the range of feasible communication. I could return your messages, but it'd take you five hundred years to get them."
"I didn't realize they'd moved Earth's moon to a different solar system," she answers frostily. "I hope those repairs went alright."
Chris realizes his tactical error and goes silent for a long moment. The USS Forthright was only in dock for a day and a half but well within communications range for at least a week longer than that. Elena gets a copy of Starfleet Gazette and she can put the pieces together.
"...can we take it as read that I apologize and beg profusely for forgiveness?" Chris asks.
"No," says Elena. "But we can take it as read that you're an asshole."
There's the sudden creak of a chair from the back room. Yatto has good hearing, apparently.
Elena winces like she'd forgotten he was back there and that worries Chris more than the stiff set of her shoulders or the deepening frown lines around her mouth. He wonders if the gazette reported more than Forthright's repair docket; there's a few missions from the past year that would spice up a publication if you didn't know anyone involved. Elena isn't one for hand-wringing but nevertheless, Chris doubts that she'll see the humor in the volcano story. She might have a laugh about the run-in with the Nausicaan pirates, though, if he tells it right. If she lets him.
He scowls and drags a hand roughly though his hair. "Can I see my horse?" he asks.
"Regrettably, your horse has moved out of communication range," she answers promptly.
He narrows his eyes. She swivels in her chair to face him, arms crossed, and matches him squint for squint. The freckles on her nose are a sad match for the ridges on the Klingon he kicked in the nads last month, but Chris has an odd disability. He can't stare down someone who used to tie his shoes for him and roll up the sleeves of his sweater (she also used to lock him in the closet, but that's beside the point.)
He doesn't like the way the battlefield is slanting. "I'll come back later," he says, and pushes himself up from the counter. He steels himself not to look at Elena's expression when he turns and walks out.