Title: I Will Not Go Quietly (3/3 of the Quiet Series)
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 1986
Pairing/Charcter: Ranger/Stephanie
Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Janet Evanovich. I'm only borrowing for fun.
Summary: Ranger's POV, immediately following Lean Mean Thirteen. Part 3 of 3 of the Quiet series, follows Oh, Lately It's So Quiet and Just As Quiet When I Leave.
Spoilers/Warnings: up to Lean Mean Thirteen just to be safe
Author's Note: Last story in this brief trilogy. I hope this one lives up to the last two and to the characters of Ranger and Stephanie. Thanks for all the kind words everyone's given the arc.

I'm strong enough to be weak. I see all these heroes with feet of clay whose mighty ships have sprung a leak. And I want you to tell me darlin', just what do you believe in now? I will not go quietly – I Will Not Go Quietly, Don Henley

One of my favorite times of the day was sparring with Tank in the gym. There was nothing like the quiet of the ring, the stark concentration, the adrenaline pumping into your veins. Tank was the only one who didn't hold back against me. He wasn't afraid to punch my lights out if I was being careless and would administer his own special brand of advice through jabs and cuts. It was like Morse Code to my soul.

I always felt better after the bruises starting showing and the cuts burned red against my skin.

Tonight, I could tell Tank knew where I disappeared to last night and what had happened. And if he knew that, he also knew how I had slunk back into the building in the middle of the night. And how that could only mean one thing - that I'd fucked it up, again. He knew it. I knew it. And he knew I knew. But he wasn't going to say anything – never had, never would. Instead, he got particularly aggressive with his moves tonight, added a little something extra as he connected with my shoulders and jaw and stomach in a way that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with me.

I was grateful though. It was a time out from the rollercoaster that was my relationship with Stephanie Plum. The energized fighting allowed me a mental escape from last night, allowed me to concentrate on something other than Stephanie's angry posture and soft curves. I would hurt tomorrow, I knew, but at least the physical pain would heal with time. The emotional pain I'd inflicted would just fester until it ate away at me.

There was a remedy, of course, and I knew where to get it – I just wasn't sure how. Even when it was staring me in the face, I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't know how to get what I wanted and combine it with the lifestyle I've always had.

Eventually, Tank let me go. I'd like to pretend it was the other way around but these sessions, I'm on Tank's time. I took a long, cold shower in the gym locker room. I could've just gone up to my own shower but I wasn't in the mood to be pampered. I was punishing myself.

Once a soldier, always a soldier.

While in the shower, I thought about last night and the way Stephanie's skin had glowed in the moonlight. Her eyes had stood out like a cat's in the inky almost-darkness, bright blue orbs that looked directly through me. Stephanie knew enough about me to recognize when I was putting up walls and even as we exchanged angry words in her living room, she had done her best to get past them.

She'd gotten the furthest of anyone I've ever known, baring Tank but that was in a completely different way, but even after everything, I couldn't seem to destroy them.

I wondered how she'd act towards me now. If she'd still come to me for help and just simply pretend she hadn't laid her cards on the table (why can't you give me these things because you want to?) or if she'd ignore me all together. Neither option appealed to me and I realized that I had lost Stephanie Plum forever last night.

I'd always known, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this was inevitable. Sure, I let myself dream but I always knew it was exactly that – a dream. Even when it was right in front of me, like last night, I couldn't really grab a hold of it. Couldn't let myself believe. She had always been my light, so bright against the darkness of the job and the solitude of being the lone wolf. It didn't seem fathomable that she'd settle with me.

Right now, after all was said and done, I guess the best I could hope for was that someday, she'd think of me - maybe years from now - and remember me fondly. That she'd move on, put me in the past, but maybe, she'd take something of me wherever she went. That someday she'd eat a big, fat, greasy cheeseburger and smile because that stuff'll kill you babe.

I'd told Stephanie once that there was no price for what we gave each other, either financially or emotionally. And some of that was true. I'd never charge her for my time or my cars or my protection. But I'd cost us both emotionally. I'd done my best to stay distanced but I'd given that up a long time ago. I was just in denial about it. To be honest, I'd never truly considered how deep the feelings went on her side. I knew there was sexual attraction and curiosity and loyalty but there had always been Morelli.

But last night, I saw it in her eyes, as I moved against her. I heard it in her sleepy sigh as I left. The price had been paid, whether I liked it or not, and I'd probably never get a chance to settle the score.

I dressed slowly in the locker room, in no hurry to go back to my apartment. I wore a pair of old gym shorts and no shirt. I left my hair loose and wet. As I left the locker room, Tank told me to enjoy my evening, which I found strange but I was too lost in my own thoughts to figure it out.

It all made sense the minute I stepped into my apartment. I've always found my apartment to be my sanctuary, but tonight, this wasn't my quiet place. It was my battleground.

Stephanie was sitting on the couch in the living room, her hands folded on her lap, eyes seeing straight ahead. She turned when I walked into the room and her eyes narrowed.

The control room had deliberately not informed me of this development. Someone was going to have a very bad week.

"Stephanie," I said carefully, crossing the room and grabbing a bottle of water out of the refrigerator. My back remained to her and I fought for control of my emotions. I hated that she could come onto my turf and turn everything upside on me. Just by her presence.

Which was proof that I clearly had not learned anything in my time around her. Her presence always turned everything upside down.

But even more than that, I was surprised. Surprised and pleased because her presence meant she was willing to fight me. Maybe even fight for me.

"Ranger," she replied just as carefully, getting off the couch and coming over to lean against the island. She was casual in jeans and a t-shirt and her hair was in a ponytail. She looked perfectly at ease except that her body was a tightly coiled spring, ready to be unleashed at any minute. I knew I had what it took to make her purr like a kitten but I also knew she'd probably cut off my hands before I could get that far.

She cleared her through. "Once upon a time, Joe Morelli told me something I wasn't prepared to here. He told me he didn't like me hanging out with you because you looked at me the same way he looked at me. At first, I thought he meant that you both looked at me like I was lunch. And I mostly ignored Joe's comment because I thought it was just him being an Alpha Male. But Joe recently said it again. He said, sometimes when you thought no one was looking at you, that you looked a little green when you looked at me, like you maybe were going to be sick. I got really pissed at him because that's an awful thing to say about someone but he said it was the highest compliment because that's how he felt sometimes. He said – it was love."

She looked at me, daring me to disagree with her, but she had me there. I'd seen the look at tapes from the Rangeman video, from surveillance photos. I just didn't think anyone else recognized the look. Clearly, Joe could recognize the type of love only Stephanie Plum could instill. And clearly, Stephanie recognized this as the type that came without restrictions. The kind I had never told her I felt.

She continued when I didn't say anything. "Except then you go and do things like last night. You make me angry with you and you lie to me – you lied don't even deny it – and, this is the worst part, you sleep with me and you leave! In the middle of the night! And that's not love, Ranger. That's not even something you do to a friend. That's something you do to a one night stand that you don't plan on seeing again. And I won't be someone that you don't have the decency to tell the truth to. Or someone you fuck when it's convenient. I won't be your toy, Ranger."

I sucked in a breath. This might just not be a battle, this might be a war. "And?"

Stephanie eyes were flat and hard. "And I'm here to tell you this is it. You either tell me what last night was really about or I leave. You tell me your lifestyle doesn't lend itself to relationships again, I'm done. It's like three strikes and you're out, you know? I'm giving you a shot here."

I didn't need her to tell me. By all accounts, she should have come in here and slapped me. Not given me another chance. Something in me shifted without warning, all that thinking and non-action finally crystallizing into a sort of blind faith that made the words spill out of my throat before I knew they were there.

"Here's the thing," I started, throwing her words back at her. "I've always been alone. I've never done relationships. I've never lived with a member of the opposite sex, excluding Rachel, and you know that story. I've never gotten attached to anyone because it's easier to keep someone distant than it is to let them in and be vulnerable and lose control. It's not right but it's what makes me do things like leave you in the middle of the night because your apartment was so fucking quiet and you were so damn perfect next to me. You're not a toy. You're not, Babe. You're … everything. And the truth is, after you leave here, I miss you. All the time."

I held my breath, waiting for her reaction. She was silent for a bit before Stephanie smiled at me brilliantly, reached over and grasped my hands in hers. "That's funny," she whispered, leaning in to almost kiss me. "Whenever I leave here, I always go back to my apartment feeling like I'm missing something."

She pulled me closer and kissed me. Really kissed me. I guess I had given her the right answer. We still had a lot to work out but it was a start. Maybe I wouldn't be too hard on whoever was on deck in the control room.

I woke up the next morning and found Stephanie's clothes in a scattered path from the kitchen to the bedroom. Her purse lay on the small foyer table, her shoes on the floor near the couch. She was singing at the top of her lungs in the shower – before I joined her and made her sing for a different reason.

My apartment got turned upside down overnight. It was suddenly messy and noisy and no longer just an apartment. I didn't have to worry about Stephanie haunting my thoughts without her being right next to me or that strange feeling I had when she left because she wasn't going anywhere.

I knew I'd never crave the quiet again.