Seven Up

Part One – Here and Now

a/n: As the title suggests, this takes place after Hot Six. Yeah. It's taken me this long. Yeah. I'm slow. And many times preoccupied… So please understand that this will be updated very, very slowly.


"About that proposal Cupcake…"

I couldn't believe it. In the past week, I had fallen out of a tree, been kidnapped, and shot. I had kicked my way through a building and jumped out of a window. I had had to deal with my grandma living in my apartment, two bozos working for Stolle, and Joyce Barnhardt following me around. And now, to top it all off, I was going to have to deal with Morelli when all I wanted was to have an orgasm. Have I mentioned that I'm a nympho?

"Yes Morelli?"

Then I thought of something even worse. What if he was serious?

"You know I was only saying that to get rid of them, right?"

I just couldn't take anymore. This man was my wonderful, considerate lover. And he put me through hell on a regular basis. I couldn't do it.

"I'm leaving."

"Steph?" He sounded uncertain. Maybe even a little scared. Did I care? Not even a little. "Steph?"

I didn't even bother to turn around.

"I'm sorry Joe." He would probably never understand why I was sorry, what I was sorry for. He would probably never know that I wasn't apologizing to him, but that I sorry for the both of us and for the ending of an era. He would probably never realize just how sorry I was.


six months later

As I pulled up to Vinnie's office, I noticed that something looked a little different. Then I saw it. A shiny new BMW was parked in front of the office. Through my brilliant deductive skills, I figured that Ranger was back. I wondered how long he'd been back in Trenton. Then I debated leaving and going home, but I couldn't justify it, even to myself. So Ranger was there. So what? Why should Ranger's presence dictate where I could and couldn't go? Righteous indignation duly aroused, I got out of Big Blue, kicked the BMW's tire for good measure, and headed in. Of course, the fact that I had three body receipts from over the weekend had nothing to do with it. Really.

Inside, I saw Connie and Lula, both leaning back in their chairs, fanning themselves with whatever they could get their hands on.

"Girl, you never gonna believe it, but Batman be back from the dead! Now that man has a body so fine you could…"

Interrupting Lula, I handed Connie the body receipts and asked for my checks.

"You ok, girl? You been actin' snooty. I sure liked you better when you was gettin' some."

I shot Lula a look that quieted her, which was a first, since Lula always has something to say. No matter what.

"Anything else for me?" I really needed something to do that day.

"Sure, Steph. The White brothers are on top. Then there are three that are chump change. Disturbing the peace, public drunkenness, and shoplifting. No priors. Go ahead and grab the files while I finish writing the checks."

"Great, thanks. Is there anything else?"

"Vinnie wanted me to remind you that Cannon needs to be in within three days. And I was supposed to give this file to Ranger…" she said, fingering it.

"Forget it. Thanks." I grabbed by checks and files and walked out the door, happy to have avoided Ranger.

I drove back to my apartment on autopilot, fast and checking for tails, preoccupied with thoughts of Ranger's return. It didn't take me long to get home, and I swept my apartment for intruders before heading for the kitchen.

"What the hell is Ranger doing back?" I asked Rex. Sighing, I looked around the cupboards for something to give him.

"Why couldn't he just have stayed gone? That would have made things so much easier." I told him, settling on a grape and a handful of hamster nuggets. "Ok, well, I know when he left…it hurt, but, it wasn't anything I couldn't handle. It's not like I wasn't used to guys leaving me without a word. I mean, how many times did Morelli go away without telling me for months at a time?"

Rex grabbed his grape and headed back to his soup can.

"Et tu, Brute?" I quipped. "Guess you just don't want to hear me whine. Fair enough."

I sat down to watch some television, feeling pretty good about my day. I'd brought in three FTA's and managed to avoid Ranger. Not too bad. Although I wasn't sure that if Ranger was trying to find me. And I'd only had to avoid him for maybe ten minutes so far. But I was doing well so far. I'd learned to take things one step at a time.

A few hours later, a sound brought me out of my TV induced coma. It took me a second to figure out what the sound was. Someone picking my lock. I grabbed my gun and slipped next to the door on the side with the hinges. Back to the wall, I waited for it to open.

It was slowly pushed open and the intruder walked confidently inside. My gun was pointed at his back as I when I kicked the door shut. He jumped and turned around, staring at me like I was the nut case. He'd been the one to break into my apartment, but I was the crazy one. Of course, since it was Morelli, this wasn't surprising. Morelli had been thinking I was crazy since we were both in diapers.

"Hey, Cupcake," he said with a smile. "Long time, no see." I could agree with that; it had been a long time. He'd been avoiding me like Typhoid Mary since I'd broken it off with him. And he didn't sound very perturbed by the fact that I had a loaded gun trained on him. Probably, if he'd known it was loaded, he would have been a little more nervous. After all, I'd broken his leg with just a loaded Buick, imagine what I could do with real fire-power.

"What are you doing in my apartment." I was proud of myself for staying so calm.

"Heard you brought Nelson in. Congratulations," he said while pushing the gun in my hands down. I let him. He raised an eyebrow, and I just shrugged my shoulders. It was pretty obvious that he wanted an explanation, and I thought that a brief one wouldn't hurt.

"I thought that if I was gonna keep doing skip tracing, that I should learn how to use my gun." Not a lie. Not that it was the truth, either, but I'd learned the arts of partial truths and lies by omission.

We stood there in an uncomfortable silence for a few more minutes. "Well," he finally said, looking at me expectantly. "Are you gonna invite me in or what?"

I ignored the fact that he was already in and motioned to a chair, slipping my gun to the small of my back. There was really no point in keeping it out unless I planned on using it, and as much appeal as that thought held, I didn't think that it would be especially productive. Not to mention that I'd probably end up in jail. You know, assaulting an officer and all that jazz. So I just sat back and waited for him to spill it. After all, he was the one that broke into my apartment, so obviously there was something he wanted to talk about. Probably.

We did the staring thing for a little longer, and I was getting tired of waiting. I'm not exactly the most patient person in the world, and since my job requires a lot of stakeouts, my patience is usually gone by the end of the day. Not that I actually wait for very long when I do a stake out. After about ten minutes, I get bored and try an alternate method of finding my FTA. Still, those ten minutes are very trying on a woman's patience.

"Are you here for a reason?" I guess I wasn't really in the mood for waiting on him.

"Like I said, good job on Nelson. High bond, what was he, 50, 60 grand?"

"Something like that." It had actually been a $500,000 bond. The guy had killed a senator's daughter. I'd been surprised when he'd gotten bail at all. I'd been even more surprised Vinnie had been the one to bond him. "I brought him in last week. Gotta come up with something better, Morelli. Start talking or get the hell out of my apartment."

Did I mention that I was running low on patience?

"Guess you heard Ranger's back?" It wasn't a question. Well. Perfect.

"Get out," I told him calmly.

"Huh?" Morelli looked just a little disturbed by my directness. I wasn't all that worried. It's not like I had Burg Hostess of the Year on the line, we all knew that. Especially after I hadn't invited him in right away.

"Get out of my apartment," I told him again. I was righteously angry. For six months, I hadn't heard a word from him. Then Ranger came back and Morelli was on me like white on rice? He somehow felt it was his duty to break into my apartment and let me know? Just dandy.

"Well, I just thought…" he trailed off.

"You just thought what?" I asked, just slightly more harshly than I had intended, but I seriously doubted any sort of real thinking had been involved.

Morelli just gave me that sheepish grin of his again. I couldn't believe he was taking this so lightheartedly. I wondered if maybe shooting him in the little toe wouldn't be worth the hassle. He was seriously pissing me off.

I tried to keep my voice level and low. "For the past six months, you've avoided me like the plague. Now Ranger's back, and what? What could you have possibly been thinking that would bring you to break into my apartment?"

"That I've missed you." His voice was very quiet when he said that, and I didn't know what to do or how to respond.

I'd made my decision six months ago, and I wasn't going to go back on it now. I wouldn't put myself through all of the shit that went along with sleeping with Joe – I wasn't sure I could come out of it unscathed. Selfish or not, it didn't matter if I loved him, or lusted after him, or wanted to be his friend, I just wasn't going to do it. Sleep with him, that is. I wouldn't mind being friends again.

And besides, he didn't really want me. He didn't really miss me. He missed the idea of me. More, he missed the competition with Ranger. And he didn't know all of the things that had happened, all the things that had changed. So he couldn't want me, not really.

"Please, Joe, just leave." I was tired. I didn't want to deal with this, or him. I wanted Joe to leave me alone. Not that that was going to happen any time soon.

Sighing, Morelli flopped down on my couch. I didn't say a word. There had to be a point somewhere in all of this. Morelli rarely did anything without more than one motivation. I was right.

"You were right. I came over for more." Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. Ok, both eyebrows. I still haven't figured out how to raise one eyebrow. Though I have tried. I think I spent two or three hours in front of a mirror one day trying. The result was a massive headache. Not exactly what I'd hoped for when I started my little exercise.

"Well?" I prompted him.

"Remember a couple months ago, when you brought Blackwell in?" Joe asked.

I shuddered internally at the memory. Blackwell. The man who accomplished what no other could. Because of him, I'd changed, dramatically. Because of him, I now carried a gun everywhere, no matter where I was going or what I was doing. Because of him, I learned serious self-defense. Because of him, I learned the moves beyond self-defense. Because of him, I couldn't go to sleep at night. I tried to hide my feelings on the subject from Morelli. No way was I gonna show him that even just the mention of his name still had an effect on me.

"Sure." No need to give more information than I had to.

"His trial ended a few days ago."

"And?" I asked, hoping that I looked a lot more confident than I felt. I'd already known all of this before Morelli had come over. Blackwell had been found guilty on numerous charges, including rape and murder among others. If Morelli had come to me to let me know something, and he was being this careful about it, I had a bad feeling about where this was going.

"They found him guilty."

Of course. What else would they have done? I really didn't know how to respond to this, especially since I already knew that. He'd been screaming obscenities and threatening everybody he could think of when he was being taken away. I was one of the people he was threatening. Probably that was why Joe came over to tell me. I just used my all purpose response of, "And?" Hey, when in doubt, go on the offensive. A rule to live by.

"And, while they were transporting him, Blackwell escaped."

Morelli gave me a once over, really looking at me for the first time since he had come into my apartment. I guess he was sizing me up. Wondering when I would burst into tears, or beg him to protect me, or something else like that. Well, wasn't gonna happen. I was through depending on anyone other than myself. Especially if they were a Morelli. Or a Manoso.

But I just sat there, suddenly cold all over. There was no way that could be true. It couldn't be true. I looked at Joe. It was true.

"Cupcake. It's ok." He reached for me, apparently in an effort to comfort me.

"Don't touch me." I jerked away and crossed the room, where I saw Ranger standing in the doorway, watching us. I had no idea how long he'd been there, or how much he'd heard. It was emotional overload.

I looked from one to the other, and back again before muttering something derogatory about half of the world's population and turning on my heel and walking into my bedroom. I slammed the door shut and sat against it. I could hear Morelli and Ranger talking in the other room. I really didn't want to go back out there, but nosy person that I am, I wanted to hear what was being said. So I put my ear to the door. An old trick, but a reliable one.

As I did this, I could make out a little more of what was being said.

"You sure about this, Morelli."

"Yeah. We're trying to keep it quiet, but it'll be in the papers by tomorrow morning, latest."

A shudder ran through me just at the thought of Blackwell being loose. There was no way I could go through this again.

"Should we let ourselves out, then?" Morelli asked.

"I haven't talked to her yet."

"She slammed her door on us. Something tells me she doesn't want to talk."

There was silence for a minute, then footsteps walking towards my bedroom door, and then Joe's voice.

"Cupcake?" He sounded slightly unsure of himself, although it might have been the fact that he was talking to me through a door. He lowered his voice. "I meant what I said earlier. Think about it, and be careful, ok?"

I could tell he was waiting for me to say something. Yeah, right. As far as I was concerned, he could wait all night. They both could.

After what seemed like an eternity, he said, "Fine, whatever. I'm outta here." I thought he was talking to Ranger, but I couldn't be sure. If he was, then apparently Ranger wasn't responding. But then again, it was Ranger, and with him, a response is never to be expected. On the other hand, Ranger could have left and Joe might have been talking to me. That would be nice. Then I wouldn't have to worry about confronting him and adding something else to my 'things to deal with' pile.

I knew my front door was shut, I heard Joe close it, but I had no way of knowing whether or not it was locked. I waited in my bedroom, sitting against my door for probably ten minutes before I couldn't stand it anymore. I'd been prepared to stay in there the entire night, just to make sure I didn't have to deal with anything else, but I needed to know if my door was locked. Especially with Blackwell back on the streets. And Ranger was probably gone. And I really, really needed some chocolate if I was gonna deal with all of this.

I opened the door, and came face to face with Ranger.

I stood there in stunned amazement.

"Yo babe."

"Yo yourself."

Ranger just stood there, staring at me. I didn't have a clue as to what he was thinking. Of course, his face was always blank unless he'd decided to let something show. I was upset about the fact that he didn't want anything to show now, didn't want me to see anything. I could do that stony face just as easily as he could. After a while, it becomes second nature. It becomes easier to wear that mask than not. Hell, I even understood the reasons behind not wanting to show anything. I had secrets I didn't want anyone to know, too. I was still upset.

"Staring, Babe," he said.

"Yeah, well you know what they say about people in glass houses."

He just raised an eyebrow. Guess he didn't know they shouldn't throw stones.

"You're staring too."

I let the amusement show on my face at Ranger's expression.

I really needed that chocolate. I wondered if I had any ice-cream. He was still staring at me. I was suddenly overcome with this yearning to have him hold me, cradle me to his chest and tell me that everything was alright. For him to make me feel safe and happy again. But I knew that it would be a lie, that feeling that so long as your in their arms, nothing bad can get you. The falseness of the feeling wasn't the only thing that kept me from Ranger's arms, though. I'd made it through hell and high water in the past few months, and I'd done it without him there to help me or protect me. I'd done it on my own. It turned out that I could do things without help, that I could be independent. I liked being independent.

I turned away from him and slipped into the kitchen.

"Hungry?" Ranger asked.

"Always." I answered as I rooted around the freezer.

"Wanna grab a bite somewhere?"

I pulled myself out of my refrigerator after finding my emergency stash of double chocolate fudge with caramel swirls by Ben and Jerry. As he asked this, I looked at him, considering what he could mean by it. Way too many thoughts swirled through my head. Damn if I don't overanalyze things. Probably he was just hungry and wanted some company. After all, wasn't I always good for a laugh or two? Not anymore, I wasn't.

"Do I want to grab a bite somewhere?" I asked him. It took a phenomenal amount of effort to keep my voice light and cheery.

"That's what I asked."

"Well, I'm flattered." My voice was dripping in sarcasm. I was probably going to have to mop the floor when Ranger left. "I don't believe you've ever actually given me a choice before. Good to know that your conversational abilities do in fact extend beyond just giving orders."

I pictured myself putting a finger under his chin and reattaching his jaw to his face. Seemed like he was surprised by me.

I grabbed a spoon from a drawer and walked passed him, settling myself on the couch. My legs were stretched out so that I took up almost the entire length of the it. I'd planned it that way, so that Ranger would have to sit somewhere else. Somewhere not very close to me. Then I just sat there, waiting for him to say something. I took a bite of my ice cream, but for some reason, I just couldn't stomach it. I stabbed the spoon back into the carton and slapped it on the coffee table.

"Something wrong, Babe?"

Sighing, I answered, "No." Not unless you count the fact that a rapist and a murderer had just escaped from prison and the sexiest man in Trenton just asked me out to dinner and I made fun of him. There was a knock on my door. Because of course my night couldn't get any more complicated.

"Expecting someone?"

I thought about it for a moment, and then shook my head. Grabbing my gun from my back, I looked through the peep hole. After seeing who it was, I put it back and opened the door.

"Hey, Angel."

"Hi Tank. What's wrong?" He had a look on his face, and it wasn't entirely pleasant. Then I realized that he and Ranger were looking at each other.

In the past six months, Tank and I had become friends. In the beginning, he'd helped me with some of my more difficult take-downs, taught me how to really use a gun, and showed me self-defense, special forces style. And, while the whole thing with Blackwell was going on, he had even given me a place to stay when I couldn't stay in my apartment. And he hadn't even known me that well then. That was when I had learned that he has a wife named Susie, who has to be the sweetest woman on earth, and two little twin girls named Sasha and Tanya, and now there's another on the way. He would never say anything to Susie, but I'm pretty sure he's hoping it's a little boy.

Things were getting to be a bit much. I knew I was a popular gal, but still, three visitors in one night? I sat back down on the couch, and picked my ice cream back up. Chocolate I could deal with. Or maybe not, I decided as I took another bite. I wanted to throw it against a wall. Instead I carefully place it on the table again.

"Please, sit. Make yourselves at home."

Tank went into the kitchen and looked in my mostly empty refrigerator.

"Refrigerator fairy still hasn't come, huh?"

"Nope, I guess I'll have to go shopping."

Finding my box of Frosted Flakes, Tank flopped down on the couch next to me.

"Shit, Tank. If you eat all my cereal again you have to buy me a new box." He mumbled something or other which I'm pretty sure it included a few four letter words directed at me. Ranger was still standing, and gave us a quizzical look.

"Sit." I told him. I was getting tired of this game he was playing, and decided that if he was gonna be in my apartment, he could at least be polite.

Finally, he sat down in one of my chairs, still looking at Tank and me.

"You hear about Blackwell?" Tank asked me.

"Yeah, Morelli stopped by to let me know."


"Yeah. Strange, huh? The other stranger that stopped by still hasn't told me why he's here."

Ranger looked fairly startled. Guess he didn't like being called a stranger. Or maybe he didn't like being put in the same category as Morelli. Or maybe he was surprised that I wasn't too scared to make fun of him anymore. Well, he was just going to have to get used to the fact that I wasn't going to let him hold all the cards anymore.

"Do you want me to go?" Tank asked, uncertain as to what to do. I guess I could understand this. After all, he was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"No, you aren't interrupting anything." I told him.

"Yes, Tank. Would you excuse us?" Ranger said at the same time.

Now, I could tell that Tank was really being put on the spot. I had asked him to stay, and Ranger had asked him to leave. I was somewhat curious as to what he would do, but I couldn't let him get in trouble with Ranger. Tank looked to Ranger, and then me, and I nodded that I would be alright.

"Call me." He said as he got up to leave. I nodded in response.

After he left, Ranger gave me another quizzical look.

"Care to explain?" He asked me.

"Explain what?" Didn't really matter what, though I had an idea what he wanted to know. I wasn't going to explain anything. He was the one with the 'splainin' to do.'

"Explain about Tank." The skin around his eyes and forehead had gone tight. He was not a happy camper.

"About Tank?" I asked innocently. "Why, didn't you send him to take care of me in your absence? It was very kind of you to send a replacement while you were away. He filled in quite nicely for you. In fact, you either have very little confidence in Tank, or have an ego the size of New York, because Tank did just fine on his own. The other three guys were really quite unnecessary. Although, they do make nice eye candy, don't you think?" That last part was just me being a bitch. But hey, I was pissed about Ranger and scared about Blackwell and in an overall shitty mood and Ranger made a handy target.

This was when he was supposed to yell and storm out. It didn't work that way, though. I guess he missed the cue. He just sat and stared at me. But two can play at that game. I just sat and ate my ice cream.

"Are you here for any particular reason?" So I really needed to work on my patience. I wanted him to say that he'd missed me. I wanted him to tell me that he'd come by to explain why he hadn't told me he was going to leave in the first place. I wanted him to be there for me.

"Gotta job for you, Babe."

A job. I should have figured that a job would be the only thing to bring Ranger back to Trenton. I should have known that he would never have come and talked to me at all unless it was work related. I ruthlessly shut out the blossom of pain that started in my chest.

"What is it?" I asked.

It took him a minute to say anything else. "You've changed."

Of course I've changed, I screamed at him silently. You left for six months. What did you expect? That I'd just be sitting here on the couch? Waiting for you to show up and whisk me away? That was just in the fantasy world. It took me a while, but I grew out of believing that dreams could come true.

"Yes," I said. "Yes I have. Now what kind of job is it?"

He looked at me for a minute, like he was sizing me up. Then he started telling me about the job.

"Job's over in Vegas. We leave day after tomorrow. You in?" he asked.

Vegas? What the hell would we be doing in Vegas? He was giving me a look like he was trying to figure out what was going through my head. I wished him the best of luck. It would probably be good if one of us knew what I was thinking.

"What's the job." It didn't escape my notice that he hadn't answered that part of the question.

"We're going to sort out a problem for a client of mine."

"Which is what?"

"Drug related."

It left me to wonder if the client had a drug addiction, or someone in the client's family or business did. Probably, simple addiction wasn't the problem. They had clinics for that, not military operations.

"So are you in?" He asked me.

Probably I should have asked more questions. Probably I shouldn't agree to a job so blindly. Probably I needed to get Ranger out of my apartment so that I could put my heart and head back together. I just nodded.

"Good. Tank will pick you up tomorrow morning. You need to pick up some things before you go."

Pick up some things? What did he mean by that? Guns? Plane tickets? Grenades?

"What kind of things?" I asked.

"Clothes will be provided, but you need to bring…lingerie." If I didn't know better, I'd say Ranger blushed.

"Lingerie?" I asked. "You're assuming I don't already have some?"

"It needs to be high-end stuff, whatever that is," he said. "You're going in as a very, very well kept, sexy woman, so you all of your things need to match that part."

Because now, of course, I'm cheap and dumpy and all of my clothing fit that part.

"Anything specific?" I asked.

"Whatever you think is best," he said dismissively. "But I prefer stockings and garter belts." Ranger was back to being his cocky self. He flashed me a grin that said he knew me, and knew that he'd be seeing me in nothing but those thigh highs. Little did he know.

"Why is Tank picking me up?" Back to business. Well, mostly anyway. "Do you want me to try it on for him? You know, just to make sure I've picked out the right kind of thing?" He blinked. Twice.

"He'll be there to pay for the stuff." Ranger's voice was still steady. But it was very slightly deeper.

"I can buy it myself." He just looked at me.

"Ranger, believe it or not, I can pay for things." He continued his blank look.

"Fine. Tell him to pick me up at nine. And let him know that we'll be meeting some people there. Don't forget to lock up on your way out."

Damn. Didn't know I had it in me to be so blunt. I just sat there on the couch, watching him stare at me. I could tell that he was not sure about me anymore. And why isn't he leaving? Doesn't he know a dismissal when he hears one? Wasn't he in the Army, or something?

"Meet me at Big Jim's for lunch tomorrow. 12:00," he told me.

I just smiled and shook my head.

"What?" He asked. He'd never even considered that I might have other plans.

"I'm busy."

"Anything in particular?" His voice didn't give any indication of his feelings.

"Yes." I could tell he wanted me to continue, but I wasn't going to.

"Dinner at seven, then." He told me.

"Ranger," I sighed and closed my eyes. I don't think he would understand, so I didn't even try to explain.

"Fine, Stephanie." I heard the first edge of anger to his voice. "When would you like for us to meet to discuss the rest of this job?"

"Dinner tomorrow night would be fine, Ranger. Where would you like me to meet you?" My voice sounded hollow, even to me.

"I'll pick you up. Be ready at eight." He didn't sound all that happy either. I wondered if I just had that effect on people?

I shut my eyes and just sat there, trying to assimilate all of the information I'd received in the past half hour, until I heard a knock on my door. I was too tired to do anything about it, so I just sat there, on my couch, doing nothing.

Tank called through the door to let me know who it was. "Hey, Angel. I'll just let myself in."

I don't think the door was even locked. His eyes went from me, to the chocolate ice cream melting on the coffee table, and back to me.

After quickly putting the ice cream in the freezer, Tank strode back over to me and sat down. I tried to get myself ready for the song and dance routine I'd have to go through with him. I even had all my answers ready - Yes, Tank. Everything's just wonderful. And how about yourself?

"Wanna talk about it?" He asked me.

Well, that was an improvement. At least he isn't asking stupid questions like, "How you holding up?" or "Is everything all right?"

I turned to give him a hug. He was a friend, and he was concerned. I didn't need to shut him out. I just had to keep repeating that to myself so I wouldn't get snappy and drive my friend away. I leaned back against him, accepting the support he offered while I considered my answer. No seemed too rude. Not that that would normally bother me, but I couldn't do that with Tank, especially when he's being all nice like this. He really makes it rather hard to be a bitch sometimes. I finally decided on a condensed and abridged version.

"Morelli broke in to tell me about Blackwell. Then Ranger showed up and told me about a job in Vegas. Oh, you're taking me shopping tomorrow at nine." There. That summed it up quite nicely without any of those pesky details, like emotions.

"How'd you handle Morelli?" Figured that would be his first question. Tank was almost obsessed with training me on self defense and gun work. Those were his words. The words I used were never so nice.

"I didn't know it was him."

"You pulled a gun on Morelli?" ESP at its best. He sounded rather surprised.

"Yeah, I'm not used to people breaking into my apartment anymore." And I wasn't. The people who had broken in on a regular basis left. Everyone else knocked. Except the bad guys, but I managed to get them under control. Usually.

"You shouldn't be used to it. Not safe like that. Should get an alarm system."

"I know, but they're expensive, and you need to have them installed, and…"

He started to laugh. At least one of us was. This was a routine I pulled whenever anyone mentioned an alarm system.

"How many times have we been through this?" He asked me.

In my most innocent tone, I informed him that I had no idea whatsoever what he was talking about.

"Need a place to stay until the whole Blackwell thing blows over?" Tank offered.

I put a fake smile on my face. "No, but thanks. We're leaving for Vegas day after tomorrow. You're coming, right?"

"Why'd you agree to go?" He asked, and I sighed.

"Why not?" There, see? That wasn't a lie. Though if I told him the truth, it would be a different answer. If I told him the truth, it would run somewhere along the lines of 'I owe Ranger.'

"Not to mention you get nice, fat checks to go along with each one you accept, huh?"

I laughed a little, trying to make light of the situation. "Yeah." I said. "Something like that."

After a little while, Tank left, and I went into my bedroom. I opened my sock drawer and pulled out the envelope that held a single check stub. It had been made out to me, from Rangeman. $10,000.00 for surveillance, assist in a take down, and compensation for injuries obtained as a direct result of employment. It was a check for the work I did during the Ramos mess. I hadn't done it for the money. I did it because he had been a friend, and he had asked me to help. Sometimes, I just needed to look at it, remind myself that it's there, and that it's real. I tend to do it when I feel my fantasy world creeping up on me again.

Then I laid down on my bed and tried to sleep.

As the alarm clock startled me, I lost count. So far, the most sheep I've had has been in the in the twenty thousands. I remember seeing Once Upon a Mattress when I was in my teens. It had been a cute musical, based on the Princess and the Pea. Right now, it wasn't so cute. I felt like Fred. "37,428! What do you stuff your mattresses with!" Although my problem had nothing to do with peas and everything to do with fear. As I got out of bed, I pondered all the things going on in my life at the moment. The list turned out to be way to long, so I decided to just get ready.

I looked at the clock. Eight. I had called the girls last night and told them to meet me at 10:30. None of them asked why, which made me wonder if they thought I needed a shopping trip for its more therapeutic qualities. Probably. After all, they knew Ranger was back. Then again, they knew Ranger was back, so it's even more probable that they were hoping to pump me for gossip to feed the grapevine.

I jumped into the shower and was out in record time. I went with the soft curly look for my hair, and plastered it with hairspray to keep it in place. I skimped on the make up, only one coat of mascara and eye-liner.

With 15 minutes left, I ran into my room and scrounged through my closet looking for something that wasn't too wrinkled. Unfortunately, I really had to do laundry, so my choices were limited to jeans and a t-shirt, or jeans and a t-shirt.

I grabbed my purse and made sure I had all of the essentials. Cell phone, hair spray, make-up, cuffs, pager, nail file, pepper spray, wallet. Yep, everything I needed. There was a knock on my door and I quickly stuck my gun in the small of my back. After all, better safe than sorry.

Right on time. I opened the door, ready to greet Tank, but it wasn't him.