Mama. Mama! Oh shit!
This was so not how I imagined meeting Carlos' mother. Okay, I actually never really expected to meet Mama Batman, still, if it had ever come to that, I'd have preferred another way for that meeting. Certainly not her barging in on us in the middle of a fight, me hovering dangerously close over her son. Though not really in any awkward position or doing something nasty, I deeply blushed and hurried to put some distance between me and Carlos, straightening my more or less still straight clothes. Jee-eez. When I tried to step away from the bed though I found myself unable to do so due to the tight grip Carlos still had on my arm. About to spare him a glare, I did a double take. Was I seeing things here or was there actually something like apprehension in his eyes?
"Ricardo, respuestas por favor. Ahora."
Uh-oh, and I always thought Carlos had learned that certain no-discussion-allowed-tone in the army, but seeing the way this petite latina woman looked at Carlos and the tone she used, it looked as if I had to correct that impression. I didn't know what she had said, but it was easy enough to recognize the demand in it.
Out of the corner of my eyes I caught Carlos cringing. Hot damn! I hadn't imagined it! Batman was afraid of his mom! Hehe. So he was human after all. If I ever had doubts, here was the proof. And not only was she his mother, oh no, she was a really tiny woman, slender, with a figure any woman would kill for to have with fifty something. Not that she looked a day older than thirty-five. And big bad-ass ex-Ranger Carlos Manoso was afraid of that petite woman. Oh yeah, that was good.
"Mama," he repeated, whining, stopping again, either at a loss of words or refusing to say anything else.
And he could whine!
Oh, this so was making my day! About time. So far it sure hadn't been much fun. The worry, the tension, the mess with the press release, the stress with my mom, the shit with that damn puppet master still aloof and now the fight with Carlos - oh yeah, I definitely deserved some amusement right now.
I could have watched this for a while longer and I would have if I hadn't thought it was time to introduce myself properly as Carlos apparently wasn't up to that. So I took a step forward, producing a smile my mother would be proud of. "Mrs Manoso? I am so happy to finally meet you." I really was. All the stories this woman could tell! I was dying to hear more about little Ranger. Somewhere in all that tight control had to be something that could be used as a weapon or comeback for future embarrassing moments for me that were bound to come.
Her eyes turned on me and instantly, my smile wavered. So that scrutinizing stare Carlos mastered so well didn't come from the army either. The family resemblance overall wasn't that big, apart of the same mocha skin texture, but he definitely had gotten his eyes from his mother. Same color, same intensity that made you sweat if exposed to it longer than three seconds. By the time she spoke I was sweating like a pig already.
Her single question though was like a bucket of ice, delivered in a soft, smooth and completely accent free velvet but no-nonsense voice. "Are you pregnant?"
Behind me, Carlos straightened, squeezing my hand. "Mama, no. Stephanie es el amor de mi vida. Es la única razón por la cual somos casado."
I caught enough to know that Carlos had just assured her that I wasn't pregnant, still, the stupefaction her question had propelled me into was passing and I was feeling the need to give my own two pieces. "Jesus, no, I'm not pregnant. Why do people always automatically assume one is pregnant? Why would you think it in the first place?"
One perfectly shaped eyebrow rose. "Usually, the only reason for a connection like this, hurried and secretive, is a pregnancy. What other reason should my son have to suddenly marry, after years of strict celibacy and a clear statement to remain so for the rest of his life, no matter how foolish that is? Without saying one word to his family or even bother to introduce his new wife to his parents and siblings at least?"
It didn't go by me that we had just been presented with yet another big complication, namely his family, like mine, believing us being truly married, still, for the moment I couldn't care less. "Even if I were pregnant, this is the twenty-first century, for Heaven's sake. A positive pregnancy test doesn't mean you've got to run in front of the altar next."
Her eyes hardened. "I raised my son to do the right thing."
'Yeah, and it turned out so well the last time,' I thought. In front of me, Mrs Manoso sucked in the air, her eyes widening while behind me I heard a very fake cough.
Crap. Me and my unstoppable mouth!
Another fake cough from behind while Carlos' mother's mouth corners started to actually twitch. No idea if in a good or bad way. Then again, was there any good way still possible at all?
She looked past me at Carlos and the twitch turned into a smile. "Ella es fuego. Está bien por ti. Pienso que la aprecio." Turning to me, her smile widened as she stretched out her arms. "I am Maria, Ricardo's mother. It is about time a woman brought down my son to his knees and taught him that the life he's been leading so far is no way to live. Not to forget how boring it is without love and good sex, eh?" Thus said she drew me down to her to envelop me in a bone-crashing hug. "Gracias," she whispered into my ear before letting go of me, patting my arm, and stepping to the hospital bed, looking him over.
Carlos squirmed under the concerned, scrutinizing look, boggling my mind some more. "I'm fine, Mama."
"We'll let Celia decide that once she arrives," she replied, patting his hand.
He made a face. "Celia? I don't need Celia to come over here. Why have you called her?"
Maria clicked with her tongue. "First of all, my only source were the news and all they said was that you are seriously hurt. Second, I don't see why I shouldn't call your sister who happens to be a world class surgeon when I have to learn through television that my eldest son not only was kidnapped and hurt, but is recently married as well. Third, it is a shame that I had to be the one to call Celia at all. What good is it to have a brilliant doctor in the family if you don't take advantage of it - especially you in your line of work. The first call David should have done was to your sister - then to me and your father. It was pure luck I was in the area to catch the news, having had to attend a meeting in town."
From the look on Carlos' face, he wouldn't have called it luck. I chuckled. It was really refreshing and reassuring to see that even he had his own troubles dealing with family.
"At least tell me Celia is the only one you called," he grumbled with a dark look.
"Of course not. You may prefer your family learning important things about you trough television but I certainly was not to let them have the same shock upon watching the news as I had," she told him with a look that would have had me going to my room and not dare stuck even a tote out of it for a long while. As it was, Batman too squirmed some more. "Your father is on his way in from DC, along with Christina and your abuela. Elena is flying up as we speak and Alejandro will come as soon as possible. As Nadia is still in Africa, she obviously can't come but she sends her best wishes and is very excited to meet her new sister once she comes back in three months."
"The whole clan? You called them all to descend on us now?" he asked, incredulous and with what looked a tiny bit like panic.
"Well, what did you expect? You are sick, of course we come. Plus, we are all very excited to meet our new daughter and sister," Maria replied innocently, reaching out to pat my hand. I got the impression she was quite a patter. Of course, with what, six kids, I guess you had to become a pro at padding. Jesus. And they were all going to come here to meet me and expect answers? Suddenly I didn't feel so good anymore. It must have shown as my hand experienced more patting and Carlos took my hand and tugged me to sit down on his bed. "Now, don't you worry, cariña, we don't bite. And they'll love you." Her eyes slid to her son. "You on the other hand, you'll have to answer some questions."
I looked back at Carlos, just in time to see something else truly marveling. He was biting his lips, looking sideways, seemingly confused. It did something to my heart that usually only cute animals or a really good pleading look from an innocent one can do to it and while I enjoyed seeing the man squirming at last, I suddenly felt the need to come to his rescue. Besides, I had no idea how many details Tank had told him about our supposed marriage. Plus, there was the problem that the room may be bugged so he couldn't come clean right now.
Shit, what a mess.
Interlacing my fingers with his, I faced Maria. "Please don't be mad. It was really a spur of the moment decision and then everything happened so fast... We planned to go to our families next, but then he got kidnapped and..." My voice conveniently trailed off. It was really hard to remember the past three weeks though. But at least this way, I hadn't been too specific and it could very well also apply to the specialty of our current situation. Still... I didn't like lying or at least further omitting things to Maria. Married or not, I planned to be in Carlos' life for a very long time and that meant close involvement with his family. For them to meet me in such a confusing time was dishearting to say the least.
Only when I felt Carlos' thumb running soothingly over the back of my hand did I grow aware of how tight I was gripping his hand. Loosening up on my grip, I flashed him a reassuring smile before looking back at Maria whose face had softened considerably. Stepping forward, she stroke over my cheek, but said nothing. Strangely enough, she didn't need to. We understood each other perfectly in that moment.
"Babe, I told Tank to arrange my release. Why don't you go and check on the status," Carlos asked softly.
Of course I knew that he only asked so he could be alone with his mother for a moment, however, it didn't stop me from turning on him, incredulous. "Released? You're in no shape to be already released from the hospital! Almost every bone in your body is broken!"
"Only about a dozen or so," Carlos corrected me in his usual annoying stoic manner.
Perhaps he thought it funny. Well, in that case, someone should give him a lesson on good humor. "Not funny, Carlos. I didn't spent three weeks a complete mess and the last three days sitting vigil on your bedside, waiting for you to get better, for you destroying all the little healing your body managed to do by being a stubborn macho trying to prove your machismo."
His eyes darkened. "Stephanie..."
"Don't Stephanie me. I'm serious here. You're not leaving this hospital a day sooner than the doctor tell you to. And once you do leave, you'll follow exactly their instructions." He opened his mouth again but I didn't let him get one syllable out. "And don't come me with Rangeman. You've got Tank and a whole army of men in black that can take care of business for a while. The world won't end if you lay low until you're fit for duty again." Again he opened his mouth and again I wouldn't let him say one word. "Not to mention that they can do without you if necessary. I can't. And I need you strong and healthy because you know me, it won't be long and I'll be in trouble again and then I depend on you to get me out of it, so for heaven's sake, do what the good doctor tells you to for once in your life."
He regarded me awfully calmly, his lips twitching just a tiny bit and I had a feeling that I just - once again - had made a real big fool out of myself. "You finished now?"
I gave him one major glare.
The twitching smoothed out into a real smile. "The only reason I'll be released is because after that news flash, everyone, family, friend or foe, knows where to find me. And you. It's not safe anymore. That's why we need to relocate to Rangeman, where I've got two first class medics there to provide me with all the care I still need. Besides," he waved at his mother, "you heard Mama, one of the world's best doctors is on the way here, and believe me, she's worse than you and Mama put together at hovering when it concerns one of her patients. I promise it's all going to be bed rest for the next few days, just not in this bed. I'll be a good little boy."
Maria snorted, reminding me of her presence, which was good. The grin he flashed me tightened things deep down that had no business tightening right now. Not with him this hurt. Not with his mother standing right there. And certainly not with the mess we were still in. Time to get out of there, I decided. "Oh." Always the eloquent one, am I not? "Well, I guess I'll go looking for Tank then," I said, smiling weakly at them and making a hasty retreat.
Well, that had gone well, huh?
Groaning, I sank against the wall outside Carlos' room and banged my head against it. This was so not my day.
Mama smiled after Stephanie. "Ah si, that woman has fire," she repeated her earlier statement in Spanish. Turning back to me, she fixed me with one of her scary stares. "She is good for you."
"I know," I answered devotedly back in Spanish. It was true enough. Probably, my babe would bring me into an early grave but the life until then - it promised to be good.
"At least you married the one you've been talking about for a while now. She the one who saved Julie, si?" At my confirmation, she nodded. "She has her heart at the right place. She's beautiful. She's brave. And she loves you deeply. That is all good. So why not bring her home even once? Why marry her without telling us, all in secret? You that ashamed of your family, your origins?"
"Mama, no," I protested and sighed. My relationship with my family was complicated, then again, when wasn't that generally the case? I had issues growing up, troubling adjusting to the expectations my family, my father, had in me. So I rebelled, which got me in trouble, which in turn landed me in the army. For over a decade, I lived and breathed army. Special ops. Which alienated me even further from the rest of the clan. But there never was shame involved. And as crazy and sometimes annoying my family could be, we loved each other unconditionally. Though it took me a while to understand that.
All the more reason why I was surprised myself that apparently, neither Steph's nor my family had a clue about our marriage. It bothered me. Why should we have kept our relationship secret? Why have a ceremony without at least some family members being present?
I still couldn't remember anything of my marriage and it was starting to annoy me. Steph had said it had been spur of the moment but that wasn't really me. Usually. Of course, with my babe involved, anything was possible. Garbage trucks fell on porsches. A mafia boss flagged down her car to go get a smoke. A Rangeman car got stolen, with her inside while usually no one in Trenton and around would even dare to lean on one of my cars. So if someone could make me jump over my own shadow and bring me to whisk Stephanie away to get married on a whim, it was my Babe.
Still - it didn't really sit well with me and I had the nagging feeling that there was an important reason behind that.
"Why then? Ricardo?" Mama pried further.
However, I doubted it would do much good if I admitted to my mother that I have no memory of my marriage whatsoever. And while it was hard to lie to Mama, I could pull it off, if absolutely necessary, thanks to my army training. So I shrugged. "There is no other reason than that we didn't plan to marry. We just had that magic moment where we knew it's what we wanted and we did it before we let circumstances or the doubts of other people talk us out of it again. As soon as we'd have been settled we'd have told everyone but then I got kidnapped and Stephanie simply didn't think of it anymore." That at least was the most likely scenario based on Steph's words and what I caught from the news report. Perhaps it had happened exactly this way. I hoped it did. I wasn't sure I'd like any other scenario.
Well, apart of one maybe, I thought, thinking back to mama's question of my Babe being pregnant. While I agreed with her that it was hardly the time to have a baby together and that even then, it's no reason to get married on the spot - I would have married her. Not because it was the right thing to do, like Steph said, been there, done that, but because I love her and it would been the perfect excuse to finally and very officially make her mine.
Mama was silent, just looking at me. Not for the first time since she barged into the room, I squirmed. Some things, not even the harshest training could remove from your very genes. But at least my thorough training enabled me to out-silence her. Sometimes. Looked like today was my lucky day.
"And why were we not informed that you have been kidnapped? Or now are lying hurt in the hospital for three days already?"
Or not. "Tank..."
"David is a good boy who knows what is right," Mama interrupted me, sternly. "The only reason he wouldn't call your family is if you instructed him otherwise."
"There was no need to worry you guys until he knew something concrete. And once they retrieved me, my injuries weren't life threatening or considerably grave so again, no need to worry you either," I explained, shortly.
My family wasn't stupid. They knew I had a dangerous job. That it involved high risks and the occasional injury. In general, they already worried a lot about me, especially Mama. No need to fuel that worry by calling them whenever I was down or got a bit too close to the enemy. Not that it was that many times. Still. Tank and my men were instructed to call them only when it was really necessary. Like when it wasn't sure I'd make it. Or when I've been MA for at least three months. It was a good deal, for all of us - which was maybe why Mama said nothing else on that topic but changed the topic while she dragged a chair over to the bed and sat down, obviously to stay. "So, Ricardo, now that you are married, when will you start giving me grandchildren, ones that I actually get to see and spoil on a regular basis?"
Suppressing a groan, I slid down on the bed.
"You two shouldn't wait too long. You are not the youngest anymore so if you want to have a bunch of kids from your Stephanie, you better hurry and start with the first one."
Nope, it was definitely not my lucky day, I thought darkly.
"Aunt Maria is here? Oh boy, now mi primo really is in trouble," Lester laughed, the glee easily detectible over the phone.
"He's not the only one," Tank answered, not in the mood for Lester's acts right now. "Most of all you though. If you hadn't given the bombshell this stupid ring, we wouldn't be this deep in shit now."
"Jeez, what's gotten to you?" Lester asked, nonplussed.
Ignoring him, Tank gave his orders. "Ranger wants to be released and relocated to Rangeman, now that everyone knows where he's to find. I've talked to his doctor, he wasn't very happy about it but he'll have him discharged within the next couple of hours. Get everything ready in his apartment and alert the medic and Lena. Also, you best get the guest rooms ready as well. From what I understand, the whole Manoso clan is on his way to Boston. I'll be shortly with you too. We need to tighten the security on all Rangeman buildings and I have to get a start on what piled up over the last weeks. Bobby, you stay here and oversee Ranger's relocation. Coordinate with Celia if necessary. I'm not sure when she arrives but it should be soon. Oh and Lester? Send over two new teams for the bombshell duty."
That caught both Bobby and Lester by surprise. Lester was the first to recover. "Whatever for? Between you, me, Bobby and the guard on Ranger's room we have more than enough men on her."
"We're off her detail," Tank gruffly said, still having a hard time believing Ranger's anger would get so far as that.
"What?" Bobby exclaimed, staring at him, the white in his eyes becoming very prominent.
"Ranger's orders. Anyone involved with using Stephanie as bait is off her detail and persona non grata in his presence until further notice," Tank told them bitterly.
Dead silence filled the car and the line over to Lester's cell.
"That's not funny, Tank," Lester said after a long while, all humor gone from his voice.
Tank closed his eyes and sighed. "He is really, really pissed, guys. And he was dead serious. For the time being, we're out of the trust circle."
More shocked silence.
"Maybe we shouldn't risk getting banned even more and set him straight about the marriage then," Bobby eventually suggested. "Before he's firing us for good - if he lets us live."
"No," Lester objected right away. "We're already so far out of the dog house, it hardly matters anymore. If anything, it is our chance to get back in. After all, how can he resist the guys who helped him to blissful happiness?"
"Shit, Les, do you know him at all? Lying to him is bad enough but continue even after this? He'll never trust us again!" Bobby flared up. "Tank, you tell him! We need to come clean, guys."
Keeping his eyes still firmly shut, Tank seriously wished to be in another place in another time. Preferably a month back so he could warn Ranger of the attack and nothing of all this would happen. No such luck though. Here he was, maybe having lost his best friend already and if not, most likely being on the brick to do it for good by feeding him a lie he knew he wasn't going to forgive easily. Having to make that decision. "You already talked to the Bombshell? Tell her the cover story?" he asked Bobby.
"Yeah. She didn't like it one bit," he answered and frowned. "She went along with it in the end though."
"See? All the more reason to stick to the plan," Lester argued with vehemence.
Bobby shook his head. "So what? We simply tell her what he thinks and she'll set it straight. Or we spare Ranger the humiliation and set him straight without her ever having to know the truth. If anything, that may give us some plus points again after all."
"Stop," Tank ordered when Les started to say something else. They fell silent on the spot, sensing the danger looming otherwise and let him think.
And think he did, hard and headache giving intensely but it didn't really bring him any further. There were two ways to go: With his gut and come clean with Ranger or with his heart and give Ranger and Steph time to either figure it out on their own - or, as they all hoped for, let them get so accustomed to being married that they wouldn't even dream of separating again.
Usually, he trusted his gut, always went with it. But it was one thing to have to either go along with your gut or your mind or Intel. Or with your heart or with reason. Which way did you go though when it was gut or heart?
In the end, he decided it had to be the heart. Simply because going with his gut would maybe save his friendship, but he wasn't so sure about Ranger's happiness. While the heart was only aiming for said happiness and nothing else, even if it cost them all a great friendship and deep brotherhood. And their jobs.
Slowly opening his eyes, he faced Bobby as he announced his decision. "We'll stick to the plan."
Over the phone, Lester whooped while Bobby groaned, giving Tank an almost baleful look. "Okay. It's your call. I still think that soon we'll look back to this day and think of it as the worst day of our lives, taking every wrong turn we could possibly take."
Probably Bobby was right. Tank still hoped that maybe, just maybe, it would be the other way around though.
(On the other side of the world)
"Apparently so, yes. A month ago only, shortly before our men in Boston got to him. As soon as they learned of the wife, they took her too."
"They got rescued by his men before any results could be delivered and I just received confirmation that our men are all dead or in custody."
"No, Sir. They know if they do, it's their families that will pay the price. They'll rather die. Also, the ones that survived are thugs, nothing more. They don't know details or any names."
"Good. Get the plane ready. It's time I take care of this myself."
"Of course. You want me to make the usual arrangements?"
"Yes. And get me everything on the woman. What's her name?"
"Stephanie Manos, born Plum. This here is a photo of her, taken only yesterday."
"Well, well, Manoso sure has taste. I'll be looking forward to meet the lovely Mrs Manoso. Thinking about it, make sure the playground is ready as well."
(Author's note: Hope you liked it as well, guys! As always, thank you so very much for the many wonderful reviews you left me for the last chapter. I'm working on the next chapter but I don't think I'll be able to get it out before June. From next week on I have holidays and on the 18th I'm off to New York for ten days. I can't wait to be so close to Steph's home and see it with my own eyes at last - but I doubt I'll have much time to write anything. But after that, and juiced up with a lot of new inspiration, I hope for another chapter real soon once I'm back.)