PLEASE NOTE: The first upload to of this did not upload the full document. so if it does not feel done, this is the full thing. My apologies!
Ok, the finale. As always, I own nothing, it all belongs to the wonderful JE, and I'm just borrowing.
I owe a HUGE, HUGE thanks to Stayce for editing, and turning this into something decent.
And thanks to Karen for the extra opinion/edit on Candyland.
And Heidi for all of the help WITH Candyland – since I have never even SEEN the game, let alone played it! And Heidi and Feather and everyone who helped me with kidlet stuff J And Luisa for the Spanish!
So without further ado….I present to you….Picking up the Pieces…Part 2
"...I just got back, I'm not going... No." His face went dark. "Fine. I'll be there in a couple hours." Her heart crashed to the floor, and she reached out blindly as the world started to spin.
He looked up as he flipped his phone shut, to see Stephanie swaying on her feet, the blood draining from her face until she was white as a ghost. In three long strides he was in front of her, catching her in his arms as she collapsed against him, shaking her head from side to side and mumbling no over and over and over. He wrapped his arms tightly around her, holding her against him as tremors wracked her body.
"It's ok." He murmured, rubbing her back with one hand. "Steph, Babe. Listen to me. It's alright."
"No. No no no no no." she shook her head hard against him, catching him in the chin. He barely felt it as he focused in on her, felt her panic.
He shifted, placing both hands on her shoulders and giving her a single, hard shake. "Stephanie. Look at me." She shook her head again, but looked up at him.
"Y-you c-c-can't...can't...can't leave!" she forced out, shaking her head over and over, looking at him with tear-filled eyes. She wasn't letting them fall, though.
"You said you'd be gone in two hours!"
"Oh, Babe." He tucked her back into his arms, cradling her against him. He glanced down to where her hand was fisted in his shirt, clinging to him. Her knuckles were white. "I'm just going to-" He broke off and looked down as he felt a small fist hit his leg. Kyla punched him again, her face scrunched up so much like Steph's did when she was upset.
"You can't go away! Mommy cries." she ordered. Then, as his Babe opened her mouth to scold their daughter, Kyla started to wail. He stared at her as helplessness washed over him. He could handle raids on a Third World country no problem, but now he had two upset females, and he hadn't a clue how to fix it. As his daughter turned to run away, he stepped aside from Steph and caught her with one arm. As soon as he lifted her off the ground she started to kick and scream, swinging one arm out and catching him across the face as he cradled her against him. He tucked Stephanie up against him with his other arm, and kissed her cheek, before leading her to the couch, his arm around her waist.
He sat, tucking Steph into his side and Kyla on his lap. Soon the child was just sniffling, and his Babe was silent, her head resting against his shoulder. He could feel her sadness, and he hated that he had caused it.
"Luiz is having some problems with a client." He started, keeping his voice calm and quiet. He felt Steph nod against his shoulder, and turned his face to kiss the top of her head. "He wants my opinion. I'm going to go to the office and meet with him. That's all."
"I'm sorry." She whispered after a length of silence. "It's just...I thought..."
"I know. I didn't want anyone to know I was back yet, because of stuff like that. They've handled Rangeman for 4 years, another month won't hurt. I need the time off, Babe. But Luiz really wants me to look at this. I'm going to make it clear we're offline too."
"I hope so." He admitted. He wanted her near him, no; he needed her near him, so badly. "We'll have breakfast. I'll go in. I'll be back by 3. Ok?" He asked.
"Ok." she whispered, nodding against him again. He ducked his head to kiss her hair, taking a moment to breathe in the scent of her.
"You take care of Mommy while I go on my errand. I'll be back before bedtime and Mommy will be happy again, Ok?" He asked again, gently tipping his daughter's head up, with two fingers under her chin.
"Okay." She whispered, her voice small and teary as she cuddled up to him and looked up with big, wet brown eyes. His heart clenched, and he dropped a careful kiss on her forehead.
"I promise." He told both of them, then sat for a minute, relishing the feel of his Babe beside him, and allowing himself to feel the foreign sensation of the small child cuddled up with him. Finally he moved, and kissed the top of each head. They'd better get going, or he'd be late. "Let's go do something about breakfast." He suggested softly.
"Ok. Ok. It's ok. I just... It's just Luiz, right? Just Rangeman. You'll be back." She started to babble, and he tipped his head sideways to rest his cheek across the top of her head.
"I'm only going to Rangeman, Babe."
"Yeah. I know. Just Luiz." She stood up took three steps to the kitchen, the put on the brakes and turned into his chest. "I'll come with you."
"No...stay home, Babe. If you go, you'll wind up working, and you deserve a break. Stay with Kyla, and rest. You're exhausted." He set her a step back from him and cupped her cheek. "Why don't I bring Kyla with me so you can get some sleep?" He offered, his voice soft.
"I want to stay with Mommy."
"She'll just be in your way, Ranger."
He hugged her tightly and kissed her temple. "We'll go to the beach when I get back. Ok?" He felt her unsteadiness as she drew a shaky breath, then looked him in the eye and nodded.
3:43 pm, Jan 10th
She paced the room, back and forth, hear heart ramming in her throat. Where was he? He should have been back over a half hour ago. Realistically, she knew he probably just didn't get out of the office. But she couldn't keep her thoughts at bay. If it weren't for the missing SUV - he took it to get to Rangeman - she'd think she had imagined it all. Dreamed it. She paced the house, back and forth, peering out the kitchen window every few minutes. I knew it was too good to be true, she thought, wringing her hands together as she walked. She sat for a minute, but couldn't stand being still. Within seconds she was up and pacing again.
"Mommy? Where's daddy?" Kyla asked, looking up from where she was coloring at the small coffee table.
"He'll be here soon, sweetheart." She answered, but her voice sounded hollow even to her own ears. The day had turned dreary and overcast, and now she could hear the raindrops beginning to fall on the roof, again...a slow patter that mimicked her heart as it bled out, a drop for every moment he wasn't back. She deliberately untangled her fingers from one another then wrapped her arms around her stomach, warding off the sudden chill.
"Don't cry, Mommy. He promised" Her daughter whispered, looking at her with HIS eyes. She gave her a small smile.
"It's ok, sweetie." She said, before turning and moving back to the kitchen, peering out into the drizzling rainfall, looking, searching. When she walked into the living room again, Kyla was looking at her with her eyebrows crunched up together. "I'm going into my bedroom for a minute, sweetie. You keep coloring." She told her, then walked slowly and deliberately to her room, one ear still on any changes to the noise level.
Her first stop was the closet, where she checked for his bags. They were still there, empty, his clothes hanging in the closet. His scent wafted off of them, and hung around her, swirling in like a blanket, wrapping around her, invading her space and her senses. She stood a minute, torturing herself with it, before going over to the closest side of the bed, and opening the drawer to her nightstand. She pulled out a book, and opened it to the spot where she had tucked the pictures of them. She set them in her lap, and stared down at herself with Ranger, snuggled together in that tiny little photo booth. Oh, it was so long ago, she thought. So very long ago. And to have only had him back so short a time. She thought...well...that maybe it would have been better if he hadn't come back at all. Such a tiny taste of what it would be like to be whole again, and already it was drifting farther and farther away, twisting and wounding.
She wasn't sure how it happened, but she found herself back in the living room, checking on Kyla, then standing and staring at his picture on the small end table, her fingers wrung together so tightly her knuckles were white. She managed to be still for the first time in nearly an hour. And then, finally, the drone of an engine filtered to her ears. She practically flew to the kitchen, leaning over the counter and watching the headlights slowly appear through the grey of the afternoon. Her heart had stopped; she couldn't breathe as the black SUV came into sight, slowed, and turned down the drive. Her lungs screamed for air and she gasped in a breath, closing her eyes for a brief minute to concentrate on re-regulating her breathing. The car door slammed as she crossed the kitchen, and by the time she was halfway through the entrance, the door swung open and Ranger stepped inside.
"What's wrong?" He asked instantly, his gaze searching her face. She knew it was white, again, she could feel the blood pooling at her feet. "Steph?"
"You...you...you're late." She whispered, only dimly aware of the pain in her hands from wringing them so tightly together.
"I know." He said as he took her hands in his, gently prying them apart. "It took longer than I thought. It's dealt with now, Babe. We're both offline for a while." He frowned down at their joined hands. "You're hands are like ice."
"You said you'd be back by three." She whispered dully, relief pushing the fear and pain aside, but not eliminating it completely. This time he came back, but would he next time? She carefully extracted her hands from his, and turned to cross the living room and stared out the big bay window onto the beach. The weather was as dreary as her life, she thought as she watched the sporadic splatter of raindrops gently mist the sand.
"Stephanie..." His voice was soft behind her. She could feel him, a few feet away. She could feel his frustration, and she wrapped her arms around her stomach to ward it off. "I can't always give you an exact time. You know that. You know my job."
She knew that, she really did, she thought. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kyla turn into her bedroom, and she was glad for the moment. She'd just play with her toys in there. Good. The silence in the room was deafening, uncomfortable. "I know..." she finally whispered, cursing herself for the rawness in her voice. "I know...It's just...I don't know." She turned to face him, her hands wrung together again. Pretty soon, she thought, they'll be flat. Hesitantly, she looked up into his face. "I had you for so short a time...and I was scared that...and I don't know if I can do this. I almost wish...that you were still gone...that you hadn't come." She realized as soon as she said it that it was the wrong thing to say. His blank mask slid into place, and she felt him close himself off, retreat from her, away to a place she couldn't follow. And it sliced through her heart.
"You know I'll go if you want me to." He told her, his voice expressionless.
"No. I need you." she shot back. Don't let him walk out the door, she prayed. "I need you." She repeated. "It's just..." The words just weren't there.
"Babe…" He said softly, stepping forward and taking her into his arms, cradling her against him. "I'm sorry. I should have called. I should have given you my new number so you could have called me." He paused, resting his face in her hair. "We need to talk about a few things, Ok?" She stiffened. Oh God. The talk. Where he says he's just on a brief leave, or something. His hands started to rub circles on her back, and she shivered as her emotions swirled together. "It'll be alright. Why don't we sit down and talk about it now?"
She nodded into his chest. "Do-Do you want me to call Julie to see if she can take Kyla on a sleepover?"
"No. I want to get to know my daughter."
"We can talk once she's in bed." She offered, her voice muffled in his neck.
He separated them slightly, then kissed her gently. "I'm sorry, Babe." He apologized again, then handed her a bag. She stuck her hand in, and her face lit up. She dropped a kiss on his lips, then took a bite of the Boston Crème donut.
6:30 pm Jan 10th
"Chuck-E-Cheese!" Kyla shouted gleefully. Steph had just asked her what she wanted to do tonight. He cringed inwardly at the thought of a place packed with parents trying to keep track of their kids. And then his heart seized as he thought of the possibility that he wouldn't be able to keep track of Kyla in the fray, that she might disappear on him. Relief followed immediately after as Stephanie informed the child that they had just finished cleanup after supper and her bedtime was in an hour and a half, they were NOT going out anywhere.
"Pick something we can do here at home." She told Kyla. The little girl's face fell, and she pursed her lips and wrinkled her eyebrows. Oh no, don't let her cry. He'd rather sit in the middle of a three-ring circus than have his little girl cry. Just as he was about to suggest they make an exception and go to Chuck-E-Cheese if that's what she really wanted, Kyla huffed a sigh.
"Candyland." She said, then turned and ran off towards her room. Steph moved off, staring out the bay window into the dark. Silently he stepped up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and molding her back to his front. He rested his chin on the top of her head, hugging her gently. With a sigh, she turned sideways in his arms and wrapped an arm around him, nuzzling his chest with her cheek. He relished the feel of her body against him, and stayed with her, motionless, until he heard Kyla's footsteps running back into the living room. Slowly, he let her go and turned to find his daughter standing two feet away, Candyland in both hands, her bear tucked under her arm.
"Let's set this up on the coffee table." Steph suggested, moving away from him and taking the box from the child. He watched as they both knelt at the table in front of the couch, and Steph started taking pieces out. Steph opened the game board and Kyla dug around for the little gingerbread figures. "Are you coming?" Steph looked up at him. Ok, he could do this. He'd never actually spent a lot of time around his nieces and nephews, never mind Julie, and he'd certainly not spent that time playing Candyland. Celia would get a kick out of this, he thought as he chose a spot between each of his babes. His Babe and the Munchkin. His little Cosita, he smiled as he watched her carefully place the card deck Steph had just shuffled on the table beside the board. Then she picked up the four play-pieces, two in each hand, and eyed them with a critical expression.
"Cuddles is blue." She said, placing the blue piece in front of her bear, which was sitting on the floor between her and Stephanie. "I'm green. Mommy is red. You can be yellow, Daddy."
He eyed his piece critically, as Kyla placed it gently down in front of him. "Don't suppose I can paint it before we start." He commented, looking up at his Babe.
She giggled, and her eyes danced. Oh, he'd missed her lightheartedness. "No, Batman, you can go incognito for once."
"Mommy, what's incognito?" Kyla asked before he could tease her back.
"It means kind of invisible." Steph told her.
She looked at the piece, and then at him, her brow furrowed. "But it's not invisible. It's yellow." She said. Then she rolled her eyes and sighed. "Ok Daddy. You read the legend." She handed the box over to him.
"Your mom can read the legend." He suggested, trying to pass the box to her. Kyla's little hands came up and pushed it back in his direction.
"Mommy always reads it. I want YOU to." She demanded. He took one look at the pout forming in her eyes and nodded. Groaning inwardly, he looked down into the box.
"Once upon a time, King Kandy, the Imperial Head Bonbon and Grand Jujube of Candyland, disappeared..." He started to read. He read the story almost mindlessly, until Kyla interrupted him.
"That's not how Plumpy sounds." She stated critically. He looked up from the box and raised an eyebrow as he took in her frown.
"Really. And what does he sound like?" He asked.
"Show him, Mommy." Kyla demanded.
"A lost king is SOOOOO distressing." His babe said in a squeaky, high-pitched voice. She looked rather embarrassed, and he couldn't help but grin. His grin faded, however, when Kyla looked back at him.
"Now you try it."
"Demanding Munchkin, aren't you?" He asked, then repeated Steph's line and continued through the story. He didn't get very far, though, before Kyla spoke up again. And they continued on that pattern, his daughter interrupting him for every single character.
"He's supposed to be mean." She said, shoving him with her little hand when he got to Lord Licorice.
He looked down at her and growled "They'll never find the King or his Castle; I have hidden them from sight so all of Candyland will be mine." He continued as she nodded her approval. His little girl was tough to please, he thought, but found that she amused him as much as his Babe. Finally, finally he got through the story, with only two more interruptions, naturally at Queen Frostine and Gloppy.
"What's next?" He asked, putting the box down after getting through the legend.
"Now you take a card." Kyla informed him seriously. He actually couldn't for the life of him remember how to play this game, or even if he ever had, so he listened intently and let his daughter tell him how the game was played. She picked up her card. "I got orange. So I move my gingerbread man to the orange square." She moved her man to the orange square, then up the rainbow lane ladder.
"Wait a second. That's purple, not orange." He corrected her.
"But I got onto Rainbow lane, so I get to go up to the purple." she informed him importantly. He grinned at her. "Mommy's turn now." He watched as Steph played onto the first green. And then Kyla's bear played two purples. "Now pick a card." she told him, and he did. A red. The first square. Well geez, he thought. It's just game. They continued to play, although his attention was more on Kyla and Steph than on the game. He'd never thought of her as a mother, but the role suited her. Of course, he had to admit to himself, if it were Morelli's child, he wouldn't think so. He didn't ever remember having this feeling with Julie, this swelling of his heart for the woman who carried her. But Kyla… this little being who was part of him, and part of Stephanie…It was indescribable. Kyla was bouncing all over the place, but Steph never chided her. He felt her climb up onto the couch, and then she was behind him, hanging off of his shoulder as he picked the card and then moved his piece.
"That's wrong!" Kyla shrieked, leaning farther over his shoulder and tumbling off into his lap. She scrambled to her knees and reached for his piece, sticking it on the blue it belonged on. Then she turned and faced him, nose to nose, her little eyes narrowed into slits. "Don't you know your colors?"
He couldn't stop the chuckle that rose in his throat. "Yes, Munchkin, I know my colors."
"You put your gingerbread man on the wrong color." She accused.
"I wasn't paying attention. And you, quit laughing." He turned his attention to Stephanie, who was giggling behind her hand, eyeing him with dancing eyes.
"Daddy doesn't know his colors." Kyla announced again, this time loudly.
"Kyla-" she started, then smothered her laughter with her hands. He stared into his daughter's eyes, and grinned.
"Guess you'll have to teach me." He suggested. Kyla nodded seriously, then scrambled off of his lap to play her turn.
He was far behind, having picked every bad card available, when Kyla grabbed a card and shrieked happily. "I win! I rescued the king! He's back home with his family now. Just like Daddy, now." She decided. "Can we play again?"
"Nope. It's time to get ready for bed." Steph told her, a peculiar expression on her face. He sat back and watched her, as emotions spun through her eyes. His Babe, oh she was beautiful. As the mother of his perfect little girl, she was even more gorgeous than ever.
"No Buts, Kyla-Leigh. Bedtime. Go get your PJ's on."
"Okay." Kyla said sadly. "Come on, Cuddles." She picked up her bear and shuffled towards her room.
"Did you have to let her call me Cuddles?" He asked, his voice pained. Steph looked up at him and shrugged.
"It's her bear, she can call him whatever she wants. Personally, I call him Bat-Bear." She said, stepping to him and lightly touching her mouth to his. Then she turned and started to pick up the pieces from Candyland, placing the cards and play-characters into the box, then the separator over top. She looked down, for a minute, reading the legend.
"I never really realized it before today." She whispered as she finally placed the gameboard in, "but this little legend hits kinda close to home." He crossed over to her and wrapped her in his arms, rocking her gently.
"Then let's try for happily ever after, Babe."
8:30 pm Jan 10th
"Did you really mean it?" She asked him, cuddling into his chest. They were in bed, already, at Ranger's suggestion. At first she thought he was suggesting sex, but once they had changed and crawled into bed, he had tucked her tightly against him. Now she was molded to his body, so close she didn't think the thinnest layer of air could get between them.
"Mean what?" He asked, his hand rubbing circles over her back. Biting her lip, she wondered if maybe she should have just not said anything. No, no, she was going to do this. She was going to be grown up, adult about this. Find out if there was any chance for a relationship. No more running, she told herself. She shifted so she could see his face, separating them a bit. He made a humming noise in the base of his throat, as if protesting the distance.
"Happily ever after."
He regarded her with something in his eyes she'd only seen in the hours before he left; a tenderness he'd never exhibited before. "I never say anything I don't mean, Babe."
And then he kissed her, with love and tenderness, and oh, there was that passion. That passion that she couldn't help but fall into, that made her mind spin out of control. This man could make her forget herself. She twined her fingers in his hair, and kissed him back, holding his head close to hers, hungry and desperate for his touch. His tongue was in her mouth, dancing with hers, drawing her, spiraling her away. Then his hand was warm on her breast, and he was kissing her face, her eyes, her neck... and down her collarbone... She didn't know when, exactly, it happened, but at some point when she started to drag herself back to reality, her body aching for his, she realized their clothes were gone, they were skin to skin.
"Carlos." she gasped, ending in a moan as he shifted, pressing against her. "Ranger. Carlos. Please."
"Dios, I missed you." He whispered, his hands coming up to frame her face. "Mine." He flexed, sliding slowly into her, and she whimpered as pleasure warred with discomfort. He froze. "Steph? How long's it been?" He asked her, his voice cracking slightly from strain. She opened her eyes and stared into his, touched by the concern in them.
"Four years." She admitted. "Carlos. Please." She begged, arching up into him. His eyes widened with something akin to awe, as well as something fiercely possessive that she couldn't name. Then he gently, slowly moved again, eliciting another moan from her as she dug her fingers into his shoulders.
"Mommy. Is Daddy hurting you?" He froze half-way inside of her, over top of her, as Kyla's voice filtered to their ears. "Daddy, why are you hurting mommy?" She felt her cheeks start to burn and she closed her eyes, praying she imagined her daughter's voice, so close to her ear. Finally she opened her eyes and turned her head to the side, to see Kyla standing at the edge of the bed.
"He's not hurting me, sweetheart." She told her, barely able to get the words out. Crap. No parenting book in the world prepared her for this.
"What's wrong, Cosita?" Ranger asked, his voice gentle and even, but slightly strained.
"The night monsters came. Mommy, can I sleep with you?"
Her mind spun. Oh God. "Yeah, baby, just go get your pillow ok?"
"But I don't need a pillow. You have two."
"One of those is Daddy's now, go get yours."
"Okay..." she narrowed her eyes, but turned and left the room.
"I think maybe, Babe, we'll call Julie in the morning and she can take Kyla for a sleepover tomorrow night. Just for one night." He said as he pulled out of her. She couldn't find her brain, or her legs, and she couldn't move. She was next to no help as he hastily pulled his boxers back on, and then dressed her as if she was a doll. All she could think was thank God they had still been under the covers. And then..Oh God, the first time in four years..FOUR YEARS...and with Ranger...and she couldn't even freaking have that?!
They got settled back in bed, and he drew her close, kissing her once lightly. She was just snuggling up against him when Kyla came back into the room and wiggled her way onto the bed. She shook her head as Kyla eyed the bed on her side. She was near the edge of the king-sized bed, while Ranger was in the middle. "The other side of your Daddy." She told her. She rested her head on Ranger's chest and watched as her daughter approached him somewhat hesitantly. Ranger reached out and drew her to him, tucking her up against him. Kyla snuggled into him with a sigh.
"This is what a family feels like." She wondered, tipping her head up to kiss his jaw. "It wasn't the same without you."
10:00 pm Jan 10th
"I'm sorry." Her soft whisper reached his ears, a caress in the dark. He turned his head to kiss her curls, and squeezed her gently.
"Nothing to be sorry for, Babe. I think we'd better get used to interruptions."
"Yeah." She burrowed against him, sighing. He couldn't pinpoint what he was feeling except that it felt right. So right. To have Steph cuddled up to him on one side, and the little person that was half him, half Stephanie, and already plowing her way into his heart wrapped up against his other side, was indescribable. Stephanie sighed, and he gave her another gentle squeeze.
"What happens now?" she finally asked, her voice the barest whisper. It struck him that it was as if she didn't think she really wanted to know.
"You said we had to talk." She reminded him. Ah, that was his Babe. Do it under the cover of dark, in case he hurts her.
"Yeah. Where do you want to go for a vacation, Babe?" He asked. He felt her shift slightly in his arms, and rubbed her back soothingly.
"I don't know. With Kyla?"
"I don't know. Somewhere quiet. For how long? When?" She started to rattle off question, when he put his finger to her lips to calm her.
"Easy. We've got a month. I want to go to Trenton on Sunday and spend a week there. Then we'll go somewhere." He tipped his head sideways and rested it against hers. He was really looking forward to getting away with her. They needed time, to adjust, to figure things out. It wasn't going to happen overnight, and he wanted to figure it out without outside interruptions.
"What happens then? Back to real life? What happens if you have to leave again?"
"I won't. I'll have to go out of town for Rangeman stuff, but there will be no more missions." He could feel the gears in her head turning after he said this, as if she was trying to figure something out.
"But last time, you weren't supposed to do them anymore. Then they threatened Rangeman and you had to." She reminded him.
"They can't again. I'm absolutely unavailable to them." He said quietly. The Government had not only not cared if every member of the team they sent out died on that mission, but they almost preferred it to happen. The intel was dangerous in any hands, and they didn't want anyone left who knew what went down. Unfortunately for them, he managed to survive, even when his life was hanging by the barest of threads. The end result was that he was absolutely 100 free and clear, so long as he never breathed a word to a soul. He underwent eight months of Post-traumatic Stress therapy, still in lockdown and out of communication zones until the government felt he was safe to release into society. After signing reams of papers, he flew home to Trenton a truly free man, for the first time in his life. "I can't discuss it, Babe." he added, as he sensed her fear and realized he'd been silent too long. "But I promise you, they can't touch me." He felt her nod, and kissed the top of her head.
"Ever?" she asked, a minute later.
"Ever." She was silent after that, relaxed and boneless against him, but he knew she wasn't even close to asleep. "Steph." he added after a lengthy silence. "I love you. Sleep tonight, Babe."
"I love you too." She murmured back. He cuddled her close and whispered softly to her until she fell asleep, before nodding off himself.
7:30 a.m. Jan 11th
He woke quickly and instantly, as soon as Kyla started to squirm. He opened one eye to find her staring down, practically nose to nose with him.
"Morning Daddy. Time to get up," she informed him cheerfully.
"Shhhhh. Not yet. Mommy's still sleeping." He said, tucking her back down against him and anchoring her with one arm. She was quiet for a minute.
"Mommy can get up too." She decided. He shook his head. He wanted his Babe to sleep. He had slept with one eye open, and knew that she had woken up more than once. It was never for long, and she'd always drift off again after snuggling closer to him. It tugged his heart but also warmed it, the way she couldn't seem to get close enough to him. She could be plastered against him and still want to be closer...and that was more than alright with him. It meant he could hold her.
"Let her sleep, Cosita." He told her. She was quiet for a bit, before she started to wiggle. She squirmed out from underneath his arm, and climbed on top of him, lying on her stomach and propping herself up with her elbows on his chest. She looked up at him seriously. He couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. She was such a unique mix of him and her, and he was absolutely awed by what he and Steph had created.
"Mommy's shirt was on the floor. I walked on it." She informed him. Both of his eyebrows shot to his hairline. Observant little critter, his daughter was. "It's on mommy now, though. Why?"
How the hell was he supposed to answer THAT?! Suddenly a mission in a third world country sounded very appealing to him. He scrambled through his mind for a decent answer. "She forgot it." He settled on.
"Why?" He had a bad feeling this conversation was far from over. He stared down at her in silent helplessness, seriously disliking the feeling of being out of control of the situation, while his little minx fired questions at him. "Why was it on the floor? Not supposed to leave clothes on the floor. Why were you on top of Mommy before? Why was Mommy making sad noises?"
"They were happy noises, Munchkin." He said numbly. He was not ready for this. Years, and years of highly specialized training, and for the first time in his life he was at a total loss. He didn't answer the rest wondering if maybe, if he ignored it, it would go away.
"Why did you get stole?" She suddenly asked.
"What do you mean?" Her train of thought confused him. She switched subjects quickly, and he could barely keep up. He didn't care though, he was just thankful she was off the subject of what she'd interrupted the night before. His daughter was too young to learn about sex. Maybe when she was 30.
"Mommy said you got stole." She announced.
"Fucking Government." Steph murmured into his neck. "I want him back."
"Fuckin' gummymint!" Kyla shouted. He jerked, not expecting it, as Stephanie nearly leapt off the bed.
"Kyla!" She snapped, then gentled her tone. "That's a bad word, sweetie, don't say that." He settled her back down against him and kissed the top of her head gently, then turned to look his daughter in the eye.
"But Mommy, you said it first." She pointed out. He choked back a chuckle and gave her a look that he really hoped was serious.
"It's a bad word and Mommy won't use it again either." He informed her.
She nodded seriously, then repeated her question. "Why did you get stole?"
"Because the government needed me. But I'm back now." He said softly, then nuzzled Steph's curls, breathing in her scent. "Morning, Babe."
"Mmmm...Morning." She tipped her head up and smiled at him. He gave her a smile back and kissed her softly. Then he turned back to Kyla who was poking him in the chest.
"Can we get up now?" She demanded.
"Babe, she's incorrigible." He said, but he knew his words were powerless with the grin he couldn't wipe away.
3:00 pm Jan 11th
She rested her head against his chest and sighed, enjoying the sunshine. They were sitting tucked up together, his back against a palm tree and she was on his lap, watching Kyla play in the park. They weren't talking, but they didn't need to. She was just grateful that he was there, and he was real, and she was finally starting to believe it. Kyla had opened up to him quickly, too, chattering her head off; she thought, as she lazily traced circles on the back of the hand he had splayed across her stomach. The child had never been particularly shy, she had most of Rangeman Trenton AND Miami wrapped around her finger, but she hadn't stopped talking all day; so much so that they couldn't have gotten an adult sentence in edgewise.
And now, when they could talk, she had no desire to. All she wanted to do was enjoy the feel of him around her. "I'm glad you're back." she said softly after a while. "I didn't mean what-"
"I know, Babe." He kissed the top of her head and moved one finger on her stomach in a gentle caress. She relaxed against him with a sigh. She didn't know how he always knew what she was thinking, but she loved how special it made her feel. She loved how cherished he could make her feel, with so little as a look. She closed her eyes and let herself go boneless against him. She felt a bit guilty about it, but she was glad Rachel and Julie were coming to pick up Kyla, giving her a night along with Ranger. She'd spent 3 years at the beck and call of a little person, and oh she loved her more than she ever thought she could or would... but just one night, she wanted to be selfish and not have to share her time. Well, except with Ranger. She wanted one night alone WITH Ranger...just one...she needed -
"OMIGOD." She jerked.
"What's wrong?" His hands moved against her, trying to settle her. She twisted a bit and sunk down against him.
"It's ok. Um... I just realized. We need to stop by a drug store on the way home." Now, she was definitely grateful Kyla had interrupted them the night before. If anything had resulted, would he have blamed her? And how could she possibly have forgotten about birth control the night before? Oh, she knew why. It had been four years since she'd had reason to worry about it. And before Kyla, she'd been on the pill. After she was born, she just couldn't be bothered trying to remember one more thing in her day, and had no reason to bother anyhow.
"Steph?" His quiet voice broke through her thoughts. "Are you ok?"
"Yeah..It's just...We need condoms." she whispered into his chest. She was dimly aware of his hands rubbing gently down her arms, her sides, her stomach. He kissed the top of her head. "It's a good thing nothing happened last night, huh?" She twisted to look at him, and felt his hand come up to cup her cheek.
"Would another child be so bad?" He asked her softly. Would it? No, she'd love to have another one, maybe a little boy, a little Ranger. But right away? No. She just wanted him, right now. They needed to get used to each other, to create their life as the three of them before adding... "Babe?" He interrupted her thoughts and she jerked her eyes back up to his.
"No. No. It wouldn't. But maybe not quite yet." She tucked her head under his chin. "I just...it still doesn't feel quite real, you know? Like any minute I'll wake up and it will all have been a dream, and it'll just be me and Kyla and a hole. And... And... I just want us to get used to this again. Used to this period. We've never had this. I don't even know what this is. I do-"
"Babe. You're rambling." He soothed, and she stiffened.
"Omigod. I said all that out loud."
"Yeah. You did." He chuckled, and she contemplating hitting him for finding her so amusing. "We're gonna find a way to work through it all, Babe. I'm not going anywhere. I promise." She settled back against him and watched as Kyla played in the sand, giggling and laughing with one of the little girls who was often here. Normally she visited with the girl's mother, but today they said a brief hello, introduced Ranger, and then separated. She wanted, no she needed quiet time with him. She was just dozing off when she was startled wake.
"Hi!" Julie's tall, slim form plopped down onto the grass, sitting cross-legged in front of them. She felt Ranger stiffen, and after greeting Julie twisted back to look at him. Oh yeah, and there was the father who realized his other little girl was practically grown up. She smiled softly at him, then looked up at Rachel.
"Thanks for taking Kyla." She offered. Rachel started to speak but was interrupted by Ranger, who hadn't quite managed to move past Julie.
"Well, Ranger, it's been four years." Julie pointed out, then added. "I'm glad you made it back." Steph slid sideways off of his lap and sat beside him, taking his hand in hers.
"You're over fifteen now." Ranger said.
"Yup. Almost driving!" Julie chirped. She leaned against Ranger's shoulder and suppressed a giggle. She'd gotten to know Julie and Rachel fairly well, and they both made sure the sisters knew each other. Julie's current lifelong goal was to reach sixteen and get her driver's license. She still had nine months to go, but that didn't seem to matter to her.
"She's got her learner's permit already." Rachel volunteered, halting Julie before she could start in about what kind of vehicles she and all of her friends wanted. Steph was used to that spiel, even amused by it. She had a lot of Ranger in her, despite his distance from her life. Well, except Julie's ideal car wasn't black, it was bright yellow. She suppressed a chuckle, and felt Ranger squeeze her hand.
"Let me know when she's going to get her license. We can talk about getting her a car." Ranger told Rachel.
"You don't have to -" Rachel started, but Julie interrupted her, leaning forward eagerly.
"Absolutely not." Ranger said at the same time as Rachel said "No."
"Why not? Ranger has one." She loved how the teenager thought that was the most reasonable explanation in the world. Part of her couldn't wait for Kyla to be that age, but part of her wanted her to stay little and reasonably manageable forever.
Ranger and Rachel looked at each other, then Ranger looked at Julie. "I'll buy you a Porsche when you graduate college." He informed her. Julie scowled and shook her head.
"There's that college word again. Geez. I'm going to go get Kyla." She said, pushing to her feet and heading off. Kyla spotted her right way, and zeroed in towards her.
1:30 am Jan 12th
"What made you come to Miami." He asked as he cuddled her close, still buried inside of her. She made a small, contented hum in her throat before shifting slightly and tucking her head under his chin, so she could hear his steady heartbeat. They had just made love four, glorious times, and it was just as wonderful as she remembered. It had been so long, but it felt so good, so right. There was no one else for her, she knew. No one who could ever make her feel like this. "Babe?" He asked softly, reminding her that he had asked her a question.
"I guess I ran away." She admitted softly.
"You never run away. You're a bull after the red flag. Why did you move?" He asked again. His voice was soft and quiet against her hair, filled with questions. For once, the man who knew everything didn't know something, and she knew it was bothering him. She wiggled against him, snuggling closer, and his arms tightened around her. He felt so good. She closed her eyes, and thought about how to answer him. As usual, he waited patiently for her to get her thoughts together. He always knew, always. Oh, she loved this man. She still couldn't believe he was back; she still feared she'd wake up and find she was dreaming. That she'd wake up and find the pieces shattered; scattered at her feet again. Oh yeah. His question.
"You know...how when something breaks, into hundreds of tiny pieces? When it's something you need, and can't replace... you have to glue it back together again. But it never fits together exactly like it used to, right?" She asked, then swallowed. "So you put it back together, and there are all these little holes... You can cover them with silly putty...slowly... But until they're covered, they're open to being poked at. And when they're poked at, it weakens the cracks you glued together...until the pieces threaten to break apart again. Everyone kept poking at the holes. All the time. Here was Stephanie, alone and pregnant. And she turned down the man who 'loved her enough' to raise her mistake as his own. No." She added quickly as she felt him stiffen underneath her body. "Joe didn't say that. Joe... Joe was good. Actually, Joe asked me to marry him."
She thought back to that time. She remembered so vividly the joy on his face when she told him she was pregnant, and then the way it all came crashing down as he realized it wasn't his. They'd parted ways quietly, despairingly. The betrayal that was in his eyes that night had haunted her for a long time. Then a week later, when he came and asked her to marry him.
"I turned him down, of course. I couldn't do that to him, it wouldn't have been fair to marry him when...when I was so in love with you. Even if you weren't there. He was good, is still a good friend. But... you know. My mom. The Burg. You know. Like usual. But they poked at the holes until I couldn't take it. So I moved. Somewhere I could heal."
"Yeah. Mostly." She stopped and took a deep breath, then admitted, "I never stopped missing you."
"Missed you everyday, Babe." He paused. "Have you been happy here?"
"Yeah. I never thought I'd say this, and I still can't cook, not really...but I wouldn't trade Kyla for anything."
"We'll hire Ella for the Batcave." He told her, kissing the top of her head. She sighed in contentment.
"I'm happier now. So happy I'm scared that I'll wake up and...and..."
"I know." He whispered against her hair, and then he started to talk to her about everything and nothing. She couldn't hold a thought, and eventually drifted off to sleep, lulled low tones of his voice and the steady, reassuring beat of his heart.
11:30 am Jan 12th
"Julie, can you do me a favor and pack Kyla's stuff?" She called as she pulled a couple of suitcases out. After hearing the girl holler an affirmative, she stuck her head in the closet and began to dig out clothes. Rachel had dropped the girls off in time for breakfast, and now she was in a frantic last minute hurry to get packed for their flight to Trenton.
She was standing the bed, folding clothes frantically when Ranger walked into the room, his hair wet from his shower, and wrapped his arms around from behind. "Love you, Babe." He pulled her backwards against him, and then slipped something around her neck. She looked down to find a pendant dangling from a gold chain. Carefully she slipped a finger through the chain, lifting the pendant so she could see it easier. It was a white gold mother-child necklace, she realized, with a large series of small diamonds trailing down from the top of the mother down to a much larger diamond at the bottom of the pendant. She gazed down at it as her eyes filled with tears.
She turned in his arms and buried her face in his neck, breathing in Bulgari and Ranger. She hugged him tightly, working at keeping her emotions under control. "Love you too." She finally murmured, kissing the side of his neck. "Gotta get packed, though. Where're we staying?"
"The Batcave, of course." He answered, as she tried to move out of his arms. He wouldn't let her go. "No panic, Babe. We've got another half hour. Are you ok?"
She thought about that for a minute, then looked up at him. "Yeah." She was still a bit shocked, still couldn't believe he was really there, she thought, as she reached a hand up to cup his cheek. He leaned into her touch, looking down at her with a gentle expression she'd never seen. "Are you sure you're ok with having an instant-family?"
"Yeah. I am. I love you, Stephanie. And Kyla. She's perfect." He dipped his head to meet her lips, and she kissed him back hungrily. Oh, she wished they had more time, and no kids in the house, still. She would never get enough of him. He kissed her once more, a soft, tender kiss, then tucked her head under his chin and rocked her. She closed her eyes and soaked in the feel of him. This is what was missing. This man. And she realized, as she stood wrapped tightly in the arms of this man who made her whole, that everything really was alright, now. The pieces had changed, molded, gained some sharp edges, maybe. But they'd figure out how to sand them down, reshape them as they went. All that mattered was that the missing piece, that piece of her heart he carried with him when he left, was back. And they could do anything. They had each other, and a beautiful little girl. Once again, the pieces fit.
So… this is the end… but there is the possibility of another short-short piece to sequel it yet again. So let me know if you want it, or if it's time to put this beast to rest J :p