Disclaimer: I don't own anything, except Matt maybe.
Author's Note: Wow, it's finally finished! Thanks to my beta Courtnay who did an amazing job in editing this story!
Squaring her shoulders in determination, Stephanie stepped out of the elevator on the fourth floor in the RangeMan building. She carefully placed her baggage on the ground and searched her surroundings for familiar faces. Her gaze involuntarily lingered on her cubicle.
Though it had only been a few weeks since she had last been here, she felt self-conscious and nervous like never before. She had parted with Ranger, Tank and the others on quite uncertain terms, and she feared their reaction to her return. She didn't even know if she had been already replaced as co-worker and companion. She didn't really know if she was even welcome anymore.
But she was here to find all of that out and she knew that it was on her to make the first step.
A joyous shout from the control room interrupted her wandering mind.
"Bombshell!" Lester yelled and emerged a moment later from the control room to embrace her tightly. "So good to see you! It's been way too long! Where've you been?"
Surprised at his usual cheerful temper, Stephanie needed to think of an answer for a second too long.
Tank whacked Lester on the back of his head and shoved him aside. "Don't be so brash, Lester. She's just come back home and you're already lecturing her," he reprimanded, though the effect of his deep timbre was destroyed by the warm smile on his face. His eyes surveyed her entire form critically. "You look good."
Stephanie smiled heartily and felt the previous tension slowly leave her body. "Thank you."
"I hope everything went well with your family?" he cautiously asked, studying her face to gauge her feelings.
Even Lester now turned serious as both men awaited her answer.
"It went pretty well," Stephanie replied, a little taken aback by his forwardness. "They're eager to support me in any way possible. My mother had some difficulties at first with accepting my choices, but now she finally did. It's just a little strange, because it's almost like my mother and I are getting to know each other anew."
Tank nodded sympathetically and briefly squeezed her arm in reassurance.
"So, you've talked everything out with your family? That's great," Lester exclaimed, before his features darkened considerably. "What about the cop? How went your confrontation with him?"
Stephanie arched an eyebrow curiously. "How do you know that I went to see Joe?" Lester avoided her gaze guiltily. "I don't believe it! You tracked me again!"
Her accusing glare didn't leave Lester and he raised his hands in defence. "Boss's order."
"Traitor," Tank muttered, before turning to Stephanie. "Just because you rejected him doesn't mean he stopped caring about you," he wisely said.
Stephanie frowned in confusion. "I didn't reject him. I needed time to sort some things out with my family and friends and he readily gave me that time." Tank rolled his eyes. "And why do you know this as well?"
"I'm his best friend," Tank reminded her, "and I'm the one he's sparing with when he needs venting."
Lester chuckled gleefully. „So glad you're his best friend and not me."
"You still didn't answer my question," Lester persisted, looking at Stephanie. "What's with the cop?"
Stephanie sighed. The talk with Morelli had been quite rocky and tough, but she didn't want to expose Morelli's feelings and opinions to these two men who she knew would only hold it against him; even though she was as much to blame for the ending of their relationship than he was. "We're trying to be friends. He's going abroad for a few months for an operation, but when he's back we're going to try friendship. He needs some time away from everything here and that's why he volunteered for this mission. I think it'll be good if we got some distance from each other for a while."
"You haven't seen each other in about three months," Tank pointed out.
"Yes, but that was different," Stephanie said. "Now we've finally talked everything out and are both able to move on."
"Move on as in make a move on Ranger?" Lester hopefully asked.
"Something like that," Stephanie evasively answered. "I actually came to ask Ranger if my old apartment here is still available for me," she said, indicating to the luggage at her feet.
Lester looked more than displeased.
"This is your home, Stephanie. You don't have to ask. You're always welcome," Tank replied earnestly.
"I thought Ranger made that one clear?" Lester bristled.
"Yes, I guess in a way he did," Stephanie stuttered, feeling confused and oddly touched by the whole course of their conversation. It was astoundingly easy and normal to talk with these two men about intimate details of her life. The realisation nearly overwhelmed her that these men already considered her their friend and were truly interested in her and her life. They showed that she was important to them and it made her heart swell how these seemingly unapproachable guys accepted her with open arms into their circle.
She had never really dared to believe that they would let her get close to them in the past few months.
"Well, he better had," Lester brusquely piped in. "This is your home after all."
Home… Tank had uttered the same term earlier on, but she had dismissed it as a general expression. She hadn't thought they'd meant it literally. A strange mixture of surprise, relief and happiness washed over Stephanie. Her emotional state was still fragile, and every positive turn of events was greedily accepted to help strengthen her new resolve to finally leave the shell that she had been hiding in for so long.
Tank eyed her seriously. "He's right, you know," he gently affirmed.
Stephanie nodded and swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "I believe you."
"So everything's well between you, your family and friends?" Lester curiously inquired.
She smiled, a real and sincere smile. "Yes, it's not all settled right now, but we're getting there. It just needs time."
"That's good, really good," Lester absently said. "Hey, you know what? I think it's time we celebrated. How about it, Bombshell? Celebrate the fact that you're doing better, that you've sorted out your issues and that you've finally dumped Shitcop!"
Now it was Stephanie's turn to scowl. "Joe's still important to me, even though we're not an item anymore."
Lester cursed under his breath. "Would have been too great…"
Feeling unsettled all of a sudden, Stephanie shifted from one foot to the other. Her eyes restlessly wandering to the elevator doors to her luggage and back to the two men in front of her. She stopped as she noticed Tank's pensive facial expression.
"Lester, call Ranger and tell him that Stephanie's here," he ordered.
"But Ranger already knows-" Lester confusedly began.
"Lester." Tank shot him a look and he grumbled before walking back into the control room. Stephanie faintly heard the voices of Bobby and Hal questioning him about her.
"It's kind of surreal," she softly said. "Why are you doing this, Tank? Greeting me like this? It's not in your nature to be this openly affectionate."
Tank crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at her. But there was nothing intimidating about his posture; only openness and a hint of warmth.
"Ranger was furious when he found out how Lester and I cornered you about seeing a shrink." Stephanie instantly flinched and Tank pressed his lips together in a tight line. "We wanted to help you and thought an outsider would be best for this job. Someone who didn't know you or your situation and who you could talk freely to. It only was after you fled from us that we remembered how independent you are and that you maybe better deal with things on your own, or at least needed to come to the conclusion yourself that you needed help. So we wanted to give you time."
Stephanie rubbed her arms unconsciously, her gaze fastened on the floor. It was obvious that the topic was still sore to her. The touch of two large hands gently grasping her shoulders caused her to look up into Tank's serious eyes.
"But I couldn't. I am sorry for what happened there and I am also sorry for our argument in your cubicle. Obviously I tried too hard. I like you, Stephanie, the way you are. You don't have to change in any way."
Stephanie gasped and her blue eyes considerably saddened. "Did you know that that's exactly the reason why I left Joe that night?" she whispered. "He and my mother, they both tried to change me into someone I'm not. I always thought I wasn't good enough and then Ranger's distant behaviour, the confrontation with you…"
On impulse, Tank stepped forward and enveloped her in a surprisingly gentle hug. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Stephanie weakly smiled. "It's in the past now. I can't always dwell on the past, now can I? And it was partly my fault too. I let them influence me, otherwise I wouldn't have tried to be the perfect housewife that night at Joe's. I realised that I need to define who I am myself and that I need to stand up for the person that I am. I'm the only one who has the right to decide what I want to give for the people around me."
Tank smiled and kissed her temple. "It's great to have the courageous Stephanie back that's always doing her own thing."
Tears welled up in her eyes as she realised that he was referring to what he had really demanded in their argument in her cubicle weeks before. She nodded weakly and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's going to take some time, but I'm going to be okay. I know it."
"And we'll be right here by your side."
"I believe you," she whispered. And she really did.
Her heart fluttering wildly in her chest, Stephanie stood face to face with Ranger in his seventh's floor apartment. He stood in the middle of the room, dark brown eyes watching her carefully. He made no move and it slightly unnerved her how blank his face was. There was not a thing about him giving away as to what he was thinking.
Taking a deep breath, she wanted to say something, anything to break the awkward silence, but he unexpectedly beat her to it.
"I heard the cops organised a party in your honour," he tonelessly said. "I take it your reconciliation with your cop friends went well?"
Stephanie laughed weakly as she remembered the spontaneous gathering her friend Carl had hosted for her after they had reunited. Many people, friends as well as acquaintances of her, had been invited, including Mary Lou, Lenny, Connie and Luna.
Mooner, Sally Sweet and Grandma Mazur had definitely served for that evening to become a pleasantly entertaining event.
"Yes," Stephanie answered, coming out of her reverie. "It went surprisingly well. I guess I didn't realise how much they'd missed me." She bit her lip and looked at him with happiness shining in her eyes.
Something flickered through his eyes, but it passed by too quickly for her to read.
"That's good," he said, his voice portraying the relief he felt on her part. "Mary Lou?"
"We had a long talk," Stephanie supplied. "She blamed herself for what happened because she wasn't there for me enough. I told her that her life didn't resolve around me and that's what I needed to realise as well. People aren't supposed to always see when I'm hurt – I need to ask for help if I need any and not wait for people to notice. Since then we've met a couple times more and it's getting easier each time. She doesn't treat me like glass anymore and I more and more forget what injustice I did to her in making her feel this heavy guilt."
It was really strange, but after these three months of nothing she felt closer to her family and friends than in a long time. Maybe it had been a long overdue wake up call and she was happy that the people dear to her cared enough for her to react to this call.
"You look really good," Ranger said, his eyes caressing her almost lovingly. "I'm happy to see you're getting better."
"Yes," Stephanie smiled. "It feels great to get my life back on track." She looked down and fumbled nervously with her hands. "That's why I'm here, actually. I wanted to know if I could move back into my old apartment on the fourth floor."
Looking back up at him as the silence lasted a tad bit too long, she was shocked to see the intense weariness on his face. The sadness. And loneliness. Openly displayed on his face for her to see.
"He's not allowed into this building," he harshly said.
Recoiling by his sudden shift in temper, Stephanie tried to stay calm. "Who isn't?"
"Morelli." Chest heaving heavily and breathing laboured, Ranger looked to be past the point of being upset.
"Why would he come here?" Stephanie asked, not understanding what was going on.
In a movement too quick for her to foresee, Ranger had her pressed against his chest and he whispered hotly in her ear, "I love you, Steph, and I'll take what I can get with you as long as you're in my life."
She tipped her head to the side in order to look up at him. "You do?" she asked, partly in awe and wonderment, and partly out of fear this was all just a wonderful dream. Being here in his arms, she felt like nothing could go wrong. It was like all the tension and nervousness of his reaction drained away so only happiness and love for the man in front of her remained.
"For that I'm even willing to accept that you chose Morelli over me in the end, but I won't sit back and watch you two here in my own home. Please, don't do this to me," he pleaded and Stephanie's heart shook a little at the immense pain in his voice.
She blinked as she finally guessed his thoughts.
"This is why you should let me talk first before making stupid assumptions," Stephanie gently chastised. "Morelli and I are not back together if that's what you're thinking. What gave you that idea?"
Ranger only looked at her for a long second. "You've avoided me for the past two weeks since our conversation while you went to meet everyone else. And you want to move back in to your old apartment instead of moving in with me."
Stephanie sighed profoundly and distractedly pushed a strand of hair out of her face.
"I needed to settle everything with my family and friends before I wanted to begin a new relationship with you. I want to make this right. I visited Joe and told him why I left him because it was the right thing to do. It was selfish of me to avoid him like I did. Jeanne Ellen was right, he deserved to at least know the truth. And I had to do this, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to move on. With you. And about the apartment… I wasn't sure if you'd still stick to your word…"
"Goodness, woman!" Ranger exclaimed incredulously, picking her up and kissing her passionately. "I told you I love you. What more proof do you need?"
Stephanie laughed whole-heartily at his apparent frustration and kissed away the worry lines at the corners of his mouth.
"I love you too." Ranger's frustration melted away into a slightly more blissful expression. "You don't have to worry about Joe. He wasn't the man I stayed with even though he hurt me. He wasn't the man I came running to when I sought help or comfort. He never understood me like you do." She stroked his left eyebrow and he slightly leaned into her touch. "He's in the past and I have to let go of the past. And I did."
Cradling her face in both of his hands, he said, "Things still could go wrong. If I ever hurt you unintentionally or if I ever do something you don't like, tell me. Don't hide anything from me. I want to know when you're unhappy."
She nodded in understanding. "Just let's not rush this relationship," she said. "Let's go about it slowly."
He kissed her softly on the lips. "We got all the time in the world, Babe."
She smiled and rested her head on his shoulder. "I guess then I'll have to bring up my luggage here."
Ranger's lips curved upwards as he inclined his head slightly. "Tank will bring it up for you."
"You know that my mother's going to expect us to dinner from time to time? She wants to get to know you better. And Grandma Mazur does as well."
His face gave nothing away. "Define from time to time."
Stephanie grinned sheepishly. "At least twice a week."
Rangers head fell forward into the crook of her neck. "Damn," he mildly cursed.
Stephanie laughed again and she savoured the feeling of pure happiness that flooded her whole being. It was the first time in many years that she felt comfortable with the person she was and with her environment. Gazing at the man she loved, she knew that, though everything wasn't all right now, in time it would be.
People say that time can heal everything.
It may sound clichéd, but in a way it is true. If people are willing and patient enough to spare an uncertain amount of time and work, many things can actually be mended. Broken friendships can be repaired; a mother-daughter relationship can be reformed; a broken heart and spirit can heal and grow stronger than ever before.
Time can help people get over the hurt and pain and allows them to make a fresh start – if only the people are willing to make one.
For that a person also needs to see that she is worth enough to let time take care of things and that she needs to undertake the task of initiating and supporting said fresh start.
But how to realise that? How to accept, to believe that you are good enough just the way you are? How to stop doubting yourself?
The trigger is different in each situation, but a certain trigger is mostly needed nonetheless.
Her trigger was an outsider, not a psychologist, but a man who pushed his way into her life without mercy and without restraint. He made her feel emotions she had not allowed herself to resurface in a long time – only to show his true character by hurting her intentionally.
It caused her to pour out and face every one of her afflicted feelings. It made her see her battered self. It made her see the way she had given up on herself.
And it gave her the strength and bravery to finally leave her shell to fight.
That did not mean that everything was fixed, but it showed that she was willing to gain her self-confidence back in order to accept who she was and what she wanted.
Those changes are necessary for these persons and do not occur over night.
They need time.
It will go more smoothly when her family and friends support her and wait for her to take their relationships to the next step.
He stood by her side always and he did not intend to change that fact. With one conversation he proved to her that he would help along the way of putting her life back in order.
Men are not sensitive human beings, people say, but when they actually once open up to a woman, they are often more vulnerable than every female could ever be, because when do they ever truly open up with all their heart?
But he did. He showed her that she was his world and she believed him. And she lays all her trust in him to hold her the next time that she needs someone to have her back.
In a way, they both learned something that only time could make them see:
If you are never brave enough to let anyone in your own little world, then you will never know what it is like to be happy. To be complete. With people around you that love you, although they are human and full of flaws.
Just like you.
Oh, it's over. I must admit, it feels... weird. Oh well...
I hope you liked the end. It'd be great if you told me what you thought of this epilogue and the story in general. Thanks for reading anyway. :)