Disclaimer: I do not own or possess any copyrights in relation to this story, nor am I being compensated in any way … unless you count warm fuzzies from reviews. Sadly my bank does not accept those as currency.
Fair warning: There will be violence, mature language, and sex in this story, so read at your own risk ... be prepared for MA/NC-17 content.
A/N: I've kept Steph fairly close to early canon (book canon since I refuse to watch the movie and destroy my mental image of the characters) in the beginning of the story before I start trying to grow her. This is mostly Babe friendly. I'm actually a Babe shipper and had a hard time writing Ranger scenes because I wanted him to be all … Rangery. It's also kind of Helen Plum friendly, but only because I don't make her any more of a bitch than she is in canon. Cupcake fans won't be super pleased, but Joe isn't a raging psycho, I promise.
Trigger warnings: Rape and violence against women are both referenced in this story. Neither is discussed in detail.
I blame this story on financebabe - she seems to have written stories about most of the Merry Men in addition to her Babe stories (which are also great). Reading them made me want to read more and there just weren't many complete ones out there. Now there's one more.
Edited A/N: I have gone back through and removed all old A/N's that do not deal directly with the plot or characters in order to make this more readable for 'new' readers. With that said, I hope you enjoy the story and that if you do (or have a question) you will drop me a line and let me know. I always respond to reviews.
I hope to see you at the finish line. -MidwestJen
Stephanie Plum covertly glanced to her left again, trying not to be obvious that she was watching him. She probably wasn't successful, the men in black always knew, but she couldn't help it. She knew she was caught when he shifted slightly in the driver's seat of the SUV.
"What?" Ram barked softly.
Biting her lip, she knew better than to ask what she really wanted to. 'What is wrong with you? What happened?' A few months ago Ram had returned from a mission with a new personality, something that no one else seemed to either notice or think was a problem. It bothered her. A lot. He had never been a cheerful or talkative man, not that many of the Merry Men were other than Lester, but he had a new vibe that kicked her senses off whenever she was around him. There was something wrong.
Trying not to show her immense relief when her phone vibrated, Stephanie sighed when she saw who was calling. Tapping her finger on the screen in indecision, she finally made a face and answered it.
"I can't really talk right now Mom," she said, hoping without any optimism at all that she could put this off.
"You most certainly will talk to me right now Stephanie. Why are you avoiding your family?"
Groaning softly and dropping her head back on the headrest, Stephanie wondered if she could possibly make it worse if she hung up. Probably.
"Mom, I'm not avoiding you. Why would I avoid you? I've just been busy."
Tuning out the lamentations and various refrains her mother had for situations like this, she made appropriate noises to indicate she was still there and turned her head to look out the window. She loved her family, really she did, but she was just so tired of the same conversation.
Coming to attention when she heard marriage and Joe in the same sentence, she hissed softly. Her mother, unsurprisingly, kept going.
"Mom, I am not marrying Joe. I am not dating Joe. I am not friends with Joe. Joe is …" she stopped suddenly. Glancing quickly at Ram, she revised her words. Just because he didn't look like he was listening didn't mean he wasn't. They were always aware. And just because he was acting different, didn't mean he wouldn't react just like all of the guys would if she finished that sentence.
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, she wished she knew some of that meditation and new age stuff. It'd probably come in handy when dealing with her family.
"Joe is a Morelli, Mother. A true Morelli. I know you think he's ... it's just not going to happen." She knew that it wouldn't be enough. Helen Plum was convinced that the sun shined from Joe's ass and no matter what she said he did; she'd be pushing forgiveness and marriage. Apparently being married was more important than fidelity and respect. Her mother had made that clear when Stephanie divorced Dickie.
"Joe is a nice man Stephanie, a good man, look what he's put up with for you! He's very upset about this. Why can't you see that I just want you to be taken care of?"
Hurt flashed in her blue eyes before she closed them.
"I can take care of myself. I certainly don't need Joe Morelli to take care of me. I've got to go Mom, I'm working."
Dropping her phone back in her purse, she refused to look over at Ram. What was it about her that everyone seemed to think she was incompetent? Sure she had some problems with her skips sometimes and probably the number of cars that had been destroyed had something to do with it, but that stuff just happened. It wasn't really her fault.
When Ranger had gone in the wind this last time, he had told her that his apartment on seven was always open to her, that if something happened to him that she'd be taken care of. She had questioned him, well as much as you can question Ranger, but he wouldn't tell her why. She had a feeling that this mission was more dangerous than the last few, but she couldn't even get that much out of him. Really, is it that hard to just give me details sometimes? It wasn't like I was asking for state secrets. At least I don't think I was. I suppose it was possible that I was. You never know with Ranger.
Throwing her hands up mentally and heaving another sigh, she realized that something was happening in the darkness ahead. Hearing Ram shift and reach for the night vision binoculars, she narrowed her eyes trying in vain to see what it was. Really, couldn't people invest in some decent nighttime lighting?
"Yo, we've got movement," he said into his phone. "Michaels is getting company, looks like escorts."
Closing his phone after listening to the instructions on the other end, she heard him take a deep shuddering breath. "Make a note in the log."
Realizing that was all she was going to get out of him, her eyes flashed incredulously. "We're not stopping them from going in?"
Michaels was a rapist, a skip with a violent streak and a huge thing for the subjugation of women, especially hookers. There was no way they should be letting any woman go near him, especially women who have no idea what kind of monster is going to open that door. What the hell?
Ram's jaw clenched and his knuckles were white on the steering wheel when he answered. "Job hazard. Hal said we've had three alarms in the last two hours, there's no backup available right now."
She heard and saw the thread of real upset even though he was doing his best to make it sound matter of fact and offhand. That was the only reason she attempted to temper her response.
"Okay, so there's no backup, that doesn't mean we sit here while there are two women who are probably going to be hurt in a few minutes! How can anyone expect us to do that? We'll just have to figure something out."
"Orders are not to engage unless we can get him alone and there's no risk. Otherwise we need backup and we don't have it. The women do this for a living Stephanie."
The dangerous vibe he usually sported these days had intensified when he had seen the women, like he was on the edge of something, but she tried not to let it bother her. Her spidey sense told her she wasn't in danger from him, but a shiver of fear still rolled up and down her spine before she was able to respond.
"I can't. I won't sit here and hope that they'll be ok." Slipping out of the SUV before he could stop her, she wondered what was going on with him. She admittedly didn't know any of the Merry Men that well, even if she had known some of them for years, but none of them would ever allow a woman to be hurt like this if they could help it. They were too honorable for that. I'm definitely going to figure out what the hell is going on here later. Hal is one of the gentlest guys on Haywood, something else is going on.
Putting together a slapdash plan that she was pretty sure wasn't a good idea; she pulled her hair out of her ponytail and whipped off her polo shirt, exposing the camisole tank underneath it. Plumping up her boobs in the hopes that she could keep his eyes there long enough for her plan to work, she took a deep breath. She wasn't sure if she should be grateful that it had been too cool tonight to wear a skirt or pissed because it was going to make this harder. Gotta love a Jersey fall.
Hearing Ram swear behind her as he followed quickly, she was happy that the order to protect her apparently ranked higher than the order to sit and wait. Knowing he was behind her made it easier to knock on the door. Plus he was pretty integral to the plan.
Her mouth dried up when she realized she could hear a woman whimpering and begging softly. Swallowing hard, she tried to channel the woman she was during a distraction. Thinking quickly, hearing a slap and then footsteps, she hissed out, "Throw me the keys!"
Catching them just in time to hear the footsteps stop and a lock tumbling open, she put on her sexiest face and hoped for the best. This is not a good idea. You haven't done a distraction in months Stephanie. For some very good reasons. Very very good reasons.
The door opened to show a heavyset tanned man about six inches taller than she was with narrowed dark brown eyes. Her own eyes locked on the blood that was lightly spattered on one of his shoulders before she managed to make it up to his eyes and smile coquettishly.
"Well hi there, handsome," she purred. It turned her stomach when she saw his face heat up with lust, but she pushed past it and dangled her keys in front of her chest, brushing the metal against her exposed skin, making sure she was still out of arms reach. She was so happy she had decided not to go with the 'extra escort' plan. Letting this guy touch her might be more than she could handle tonight.
"I'm sooooo sorry to bother you, but my car won't start and I have a shift at the Pink Palace tonight. Is there any way I can get you to look at it? I'd be really, really grateful." Hopefully he'd assume that her outfit was just to get to work because she was positive that strippers dressed better than this. Even off shift. Which made her wonder if she should be proud that she didn't dress like a stripper or embarrassed that she looked that bad tonight.
His eyes flicked around behind her, before he gave her another once over. "How grateful?" Ew, seriously?
Licking her lips, she was happy the gesture looked appealing even if she was only doing it because her mouth was so dry she wasn't sure she could talk. This guy was making every warning bell she had go off and she was acutely aware that she was here with only Ram as backup. She was pretty sure he would have notified the control room what was happening, but he may not have had time. If not, they would be on their own.
"Mmmm ... grateful enough that you'll sleep like a baby when I'm done with you."
Sending grateful thanks heavenward when his lust overruled his instincts, because she could tell he knew something about this was off, he stepped forward. Trying to play it like a distraction, she smiled and turned her back to him to lead him towards her 'car'. Swishing her hips, she hoped she could keep his eyes centered on her ass instead of the area around them.
The plan wasn't really that sophisticated, she distracted and he subdued. Since she hadn't had time to tell Ram what it was, she was hoping it was self evident. Getting a little nervous when she still hadn't heard Ram take him down, she almost shrieked when she heard a thump from behind her. Turning around quickly she drew in a sharp breath.
Ram had him in a headlock, both of them on their knees in the grass. Michaels face was already turning bright red as the blood started to build up. The thump must have been to put him out, because he wasn't struggling at all. Looking at Ram's face and seeing the utter blankness there, she went cold. The knowledge that he was going to kill this man flashed through her mind and she finally started to move again.
"Ram, we've got him. You can let go now," she pleaded softly. Trying to catch his eye did no good, he was clearly somewhere else. Still uttering reassurances and telling him to let go, she made herself move behind him and then slowly rested her hands on his shoulders.
The heat coming from his body was incredible and she absently filed away the spark that went through her as she touched him. Bending over, she kneaded his shoulders as she whispered soothingly in his ear.
"Please Ram, please don't do this. We've got him, he won't do this again." The tension under her hands made his body feel like a rock, but she didn't know what else to do. Racking her brain and remembering how he had acted in the SUV, she finally said, "Ram, we need to check on the women and get them help."
Feeling the tension suddenly run out of his body, she almost fell over in relief. Squeezing his shoulders once more, she straightened up a little.
"If you'll cuff him, I'll call this in and we can go check on them."
The silence was thick, but she refused to acknowledge that anything unusual had happened here. She knew she was going to have to get to the bottom of this, but right now she was pretty sure that the best thing she could do for either of them was to act normally.
Calling Hal, she bit her tongue when he told her that he'd woken up a couple guys when Ram said they were moving in and they were already on the way. So now they could spare someone but twenty minutes ago it wasn't worth it? She was going to have a few things to say about this tomorrow during the morning meeting. Feeling her temper start to crackle out of control, she looked up to see Ram standing in front of her with a blank look on his face. It wasn't the normal blank face, the one designed to show nothing, this was real.
Still acting instinctually, she put a hand on his chest and waited until his eyes traced her arm up to her face. "It's ok. Do you want to go in now or wait until someone gets here to watch Michaels?"
Seeing his eyes flash with rage as he looked back down at the cuffed man, she stepped closer to him to draw his attention back to her. For a man who didn't want to get involved, he sure seems to be taking this personally.
"Why don't you give me one of your spare guns and I'll stand a little ways off and watch him. You go check on the women in case they need help right now. It'd be safer than me going in, in case there is anyone else around." She tried to be clear that she wouldn't go near the skip and hoped that she could get him away from Michaels by focusing on the women inside. Making it sound like only he could do that safely was just a bonus.
His face showed a brief flash of indecision before he nodded sharply. Bending down, he pulled a small Beretta from his left ankle holster and handed it to her. Seeing that he was watching her carefully, she took it and flipped the safety off. Backing up a few steps and putting her back to the house so that no one could get behind her, she gave him a reassuring smile.
Fighting the adrenaline crash that was trying to race through her body, she focused hard on listening ... a woman crying, another woman talking, but nothing else. Not that she really expected to hear Ram talk. Seeing Michaels twitch a few times, she fervently hoped he had the good sense to stay still and be quiet even if he was conscious. She was positive that if he tried to attack her he'd be signing his own death certificate. The soft purr of a motor broke the quiet night and she almost collapsed in relief, knowing that it was likely a Rangeman vehicle.
Keeping her eyes on Michaels and the gun trained on him, she refused to look up until she saw Bones lean down and verify that he was still cuffed securely. Using her other hand to safety Ram's gun, since her right hand had been gripping it so hard that it was cramping, she quickly explained that she had broken orders on her own and engaged the skip. Trying to keep the story as truthful as possible, she told them that Ram had knocked him out after she lured him out of the house, but neglected to mention that he almost killed him. Explaining that he was inside with the women, she asked if they could run Michaels in.
Of course they didn't want to leave. Channeling a bit of the rage and disappointment that she was bottling up over this situation, her hissed commands finally sunk in. They exchanged worried looks, but at least they left. Stephanie hurried towards the open door of the house after glaring them into submission.
Ram was standing against the wall, both women now sitting on the couch. One of them had a cut on her face and a bruise already blooming on her jaw. The other woman kept rubbing her wrists and licking her lips like they were dry. Looking a little closer, she could see the red marks that could only be from a gag.
Walking over to Ram and standing in front of him, she caught his eye. He looked resigned and empty and she had another brief flash of worry. She had the feeling she was running out of time to reach him. Wait … where did that come from? Not important right now Steph, focus!
Keeping eye contact and speaking softly, she said, "Bones and Tiny are outside. They're going to take Michaels in for us. Okay?"
He looked confused for a split second before his blank mask came down. She couldn't believe she was actually happy to see it, but it was so much better than the empty one he had been sporting just a few minutes ago. He nodded and then his eyes cut to the women still sitting on the couch.
Patting his chest softly, wondering when she reached out and touched him, she turned and tried to smile at the women. The adrenaline crash was happening without her permission and she could feel tremors starting deep inside, but she did her best to fight through it.
"Ladies, if you don't need medical attention, you're free to go." She forced a smile when they started to thank her for saving them, realizing that Ram had probably scared them unintentionally. Finally they left and she sank to the floor breathing harshly, unable to stand and hoping that the black spots swimming in her vision didn't mean she was going to pass out.
Anthony "Ram" Ramsey stared at the woman on the floor for a few seconds. She had held up remarkably well over the last half hour or so, especially considering that she had brought him back from the edge, but apparently she had reached her limits. He wanted to stay uninvolved, he didn't want to comfort her, but he couldn't seem to stop himself from kneeling down next to her and gathering her into his arms.
Pressing her face against his chest, she crawled up his body until she had her head tucked firmly into his neck. He held her firmly, helping her through the release. Rocking her gently, he realized he was saying soothing things to her softly. Slowly her body relaxed, no longer fighting against him as she melted into his chest.
He wasn't sure why she hadn't asked one of the guys to take her back to Haywood instead of him. She had seen him almost kill someone with his bare hands, in a state that clearly showed he wasn't safe to be around. Yet here she was, tucked against him and holding him as tightly as she could.
Running a hand up and down her back, he clamped his lips shut and tried to step back mentally the best he could while still giving her human contact to focus on. He didn't want to care how she felt, but he couldn't seem to push her away. Dropping his head and breathing in her scent his throat tightened.
Stephanie had always seen the best in all of them. With all of their guns and dangerous edges, she came into Rangeman and smiled and talked and saw the best of them. There wasn't a man in the building that hadn't been charmed by her one way or another, even if she drove some of them crazy with the shit she got into.
When he had gotten back a few months ago from Columbia, he had done his best to keep away from her unless they were partnered up. Before he had gone they hadn't been friends really, but he always enjoyed it when they came into contact. Behind the blank face, he had always found her adventures a little amusing but out of respect for her tried not to show it. He could tell that while she could see the humor in them at times, most of the time she found it embarrassing and even humiliating.
Since he had been back though, it almost hurt to be in her presence. She was so good, so loyal and caring that he couldn't stop thinking about what he had done. He was supposed to be a sniper, and a good one, someone who was able to stand back and watch, able to separate action from emotion easily, a long distance assassin.
Missions had gone wrong before, but he had never had one that he couldn't leave behind him. His inability to do what he had always done before so easily was costing him his sanity, but he didn't know what else to do. He couldn't tell anyone what happened and if he went to a government shrink cleared for access; he would be saying farewell to ever going on another black op again. He couldn't make himself do that, it felt like giving up. And he believed in what he did, he knew that what he did was important.
Recognizing that Stephanie was limp and heading quickly towards sleep, he slowly slid an arm under her legs and picked her up. Her arms tightened momentarily, like she thought he was going to let her go, but as he stood up with her in his arms, she snuggled deeper into his body. Ignoring the warmth in his chest at the unconscious show of trust, he carried her out to the SUV and buckled her in. Debating with himself, he finally walked back to the front door of the house and locked it.
Leaning his head against the cold wooden door, he took a second to wonder if he was going to lose his job now too. He wouldn't ask her not to say anything and he should probably encourage her to go straight to Tank and tell him exactly what happened, but he wasn't sure he could. Right now, his job was the only thing holding him together, the only reason to get up in the morning. If he lost it...
Walking back to the SUV, he was unaware that a small smile graced his face as he saw her curled up on the seat waiting for him. He wished things were different. He wished that he had a woman that was really waiting for him, ready to go home after a long day. All of the reasons that was never going to happen raced quickly through his mind so that by the time he had climbed into the driver's seat he had his blank face firmly on.
Driving carefully on the mostly deserted streets, he made his way to her apartment building. Having spent the drive trying to come to terms with the fact that he was probably going to be out of a job tomorrow, he sighed softly before lifting his hand and caressing her cheek softly. Stroking gently, he was rewarded with sleepy blue eyes that immediately focused on his face.
"We're at your apartment. Can you walk up or do you want me to carry you?" He silenced the voice asking why he hadn't just taken advantage of her sleeping state to hold her close one last time.
She blinked a few times before her eyes slid over the SUV and the night started coming back to her. Her eyes filled with concern and worry as she looked at him, but she didn't say anything. He started in surprise when her hand came up and rested on his chest, right over the warm spot that he seemed to associate with her lately.
Stephanie seemed to come to a resolution to whatever she had been thinking, but only patted his chest a few times before she smiled at him.
"I'll walk up, but can you come and clear it for me?"
His surprise must not have shown on his face since she didn't react, so he just nodded at her before opening his door and walking around to the passenger side to help her out. She leaned on him as they walked up the stairs and quietly waited while he did a quick check to make sure no one was in her place. He wasn't sure why she refused to get better security, but there was a standing order that if you took Stephanie home that you swept her place before you left just in case. It was just that she always complained that it was unnecessary. Asking one of them to do it was highly unusual.
Happy that he was able to do this one last thing for her, he ushered her inside before turning to go.
Her voice was soft and inquisitive and he wanted to pretend that he didn't hear her, but he stopped anyway before turning to look at her. Her brown curls were a little wild and she had slipped her polo back on, but it was untucked and messy. Her eyes were still rimmed red from earlier, but there was a sharp look in her blue gaze that made him uncomfortable, like she was seeing more than he wanted her to.
Raising an eyebrow in response, he waited for her to start asking her questions. He knew she had them, could see them dancing around her. He wasn't going to answer them or encourage her to ask, but he owed it to her to at least listen.
He was shocked when she walked closer and raised up on her toes to give him a kiss on the cheek, resting her hand on his chest again. He wanted to hug her as he realized she was saying goodbye, but he held back and watched her step away.
His chest burned as he drove back to Haywood. It had only taken him a minute to decide that he was too tired to drive to his house tonight. Besides, if he couldn't sleep or woke up from another nightmare, he could just start packing. No reason to put it off.
Next up – Steph does something that surprises everyone