Disclaimer: Janet Evanovich owns the rights to the following characters. This story is only intended as artistic exercise. I am in no way profiting financially from it.

Warning: This story is intended for adult readers only; contains graphic violent content, mature themes and adult language.

This is a Babe story, and will have and eventual Babe HEA.

Breaking of Souls

Chapter 12: Stepping Out of Shackles

Previously …

Confusion flickered across his face as she quickly raised the revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger, the impact propelling his body sideways into the ground, his rigid arms forcing her down with him. Her teeth slammed together as her head cracked against the wood floor. A sharp pain accompanied a blazing white light; darkness seeping in from her peripheral vision, like ink bleeding onto a blank canvas, painting her world in black.

"Stephanie! Talk to me, Babe … Please!" Ranger scrambled frantically across the floor, gasping for breath from the impact against his Kevlar vest, his pulse hammering painfully against his bruised abdomen. He had been forced to listen helplessly to the shot being fired, unable to see who had been on the receiving end of the bullet.

He knew that he couldn't survive without her. "Please, Babe," he begged, stopping beside their entangled bodies, praying for a miracle.

The side of Stephanie's face and hair was splattered with blood, her right hand still clutching the revolver. Cain's arm was draped heavily over her torso. The entrance wound at his temple was surrounded by a large tattoo ring of gun powder, the skin blackened from the close range shot. Blood pooled beneath his head, the exit wound expelling a sea of crimson onto the floor.

Ranger pulled her body free from Cain's grasp; still clinging to her even in death. She groaned softly as he cradled her into his chest, scrunching her eyes closed tightly in discomfort. He released a shuddering breath of relief as he watched her involuntary movements. He could see that she was teetering between levels of consciousness, eyes fluttering, her brain rebooting after the traumatic blow to her head.

He looked down into her face, in awe of the beautiful woman in his arms. Hidden behind her delicate exterior was more strength and courage than he had ever known anyone to possess. He was truly humbled by her bravery and selflessness. She had risked her own life to save his, an unspoken gesture of love that he understood implicitly, a display of affection so profound that even he couldn't deny the intentions behind her actions.

He realized in that moment that he needed this, some form of tangible proof of her love for him, to know that she cared for him as much as he cared for her, a feat that he never before believed possible. He was choked with emotion as he finally accepted her unconditional love for him, not matter how unworthy he felt, she offered it to him just the same. He had spent his entire life surrounding himself with people who he could trust with his life. And now, he had finally found someone that he could trust with his heart.

He brushed a reverent kiss across her lips, thanking God for her love, for the greatest blessing he had ever received, a gift that gave purpose to his life and comfort to his soul. He would cherish this woman with every breath he would take for the rest of his life.

The pounding of feet down the entryway shook the wood floor violently, the picture frames on the walls rattling with the vibration. A stampede of Rangemen burst into the room, weapons brandished, fully clothed in swat gear.

"Boss- Oh, Fuck!" Tank breathed, his feet skidding to a stop as his eyes focused on the suicide belt wrapped around Cain's chest.

"Zero?" Ranger questioned hoarsely, scanning the group.

Zero made his way to the front of the crowd, his skilled eyes locking in on the Shaheed Belt, instantly reverting back to his days as an EOD Specialist in the U.S. Army. He was well known and respected for his ability to quickly disarm and defuse even the most sophisticated explosive devises. "I'm on it, Sir," he responded mechanically, already concentrating intensely on the task at hand.

"Bomber?" Tank rasped, his eyes shifting to Stephanie's limp form, mistaking Cain's blood for her own.

"It's not hers." Ranger answered his unspoken question, feeling the collective sigh of relief from the men around him.

Ranger grimaced as he stood, his sore ribs protesting under the additional weight of Stephanie's unconscious body. He didn't want her to wake within eyesight of Cain. He knew that she would remember shooting him, but he didn't want her to be haunted by the visual of the aftermath.

Bobby and Lester stepped forward to assist him, immediately retreating from the possessive look that flashed across Ranger's face. "Get me a washcloth to clean her up. I don't want her to wake up covered in his blood."

Bobby turned, walking quickly back through the door to retrieve his medical supplies.

Zero cut through the wire connecting the bomb to the trigger, wiping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. "Disabled and rendered safe, Sir."

Ranger nodded in acknowledgement, carrying Stephanie through the threshold into the foyer. He let his weight sag into the wall, sliding down to the floor, cradling her body in his lap. Bobby handed him a washcloth, asking about her injuries, knowing that it was useless to try and treat Ranger before she was taken care of. He probed her skull with his fingers, feeling the lump on the left side of her head. "She'll need to have an x-ray taken to rule out any further injury, but I think it's safe to say that she's only sustained a mild concussion." Bobby stood, walking back towards the crime scene, anticipating their need for privacy.

Ranger cleaned her face and neck as gently as if he were handling the most fragile piece of crystal, wiping away the evidence of Cain's death from her skin. His soothing touch combined with the warm water pulled her slowly back into consciousness.

She squirmed in his arms, peeking up at him through the crack of one eye, raising her hands to either side of her head. "Ugh … Why are my ears ringing? What happened? I don't remem--" she bolted upright, her eyes widening in horror, covering her mouth with her hands as she swayed dizzily from the sudden movement. "Oh my God, Ranger … I shot you!" she shrieked, her eyes flitting wildly over his body.

"Shhh … Babe, listen to me. I'm fine, I promise. Please lay back down."

Still covering her mouth with her hands she shook her head frantically. "No. I need to see that you're okay. Please, Ranger. I can't BELIEVE that I actually shot you … What if my aim had been off? I could have killed you! I would have never forgiven myself. I'm so sorry I--"

He covered her lips with the tips of his fingers, silencing her unwarranted apology. "You saved me, Babe. You saved us both," he whispered calmly, dipping his head to replace his fingers with his lips. He kissed her sweetly until he felt the last bit of tension melt away from her body. He pulled back to look into her eyes, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. "Proud of you, Babe."

She smiled softly back at him, blushing from the raw emotion shown in his eyes. "Show me … please…"

He knew what she was asking. She needed to see for herself that she hadn't hurt him. He reached behind his back, pulling his shirt over his head. Her eyes widened as she stared at the bullet embedded into his Kevlar vest, the inner fibers fraying out through the hole. She traced it lightly with her fingertip, chewing on her bottom lip, her eyes filling with tears.

She reached around him, loosening the Velcro straps of the vest, peeling it away from his body. Tears spilt down her face as she stared at the angry black bruise blooming on his chest, a knotted welt rising in the center where the bullet had made contact.

Ranger brushed her tears away with his thumbs, cupping her face in his hands. "It's only a bruise, Babe. I know how hard that must have been for you. I trusted you with my life and you did what you had to do to protect us both."

She sniffled, offering him a wobbly smile, finding comfort in his words. She leaned forward, placing a gentle kiss to his chest, resting her ear above his heart, the steady beat lulling her into reassurance. Worry snaked through her stomach. She leaned back quickly to look into his eyes, needing to see the truth in them. "Did I … Is he …?" she stumbled over her words, not wanting to hear them spoken out loud.

Ranger nodded infinitesimally, gauging her expression carefully. He could see the emotions warring in her eyes, relief, sadness, anger, flickering rapidly across her face. She lowered her gaze, struggling with the confusion that raged inside of her.

He lifted her chin with his finger, forcing her to meet his eyes. "Stephanie, he left you NO other choice. Taking someone's life is never easy, but you have to understand that either way someone would have died tonight." He shook his head, realizing just how lucky he had been. "And without you … I can guarantee that it wouldn't have been Cain."

Stephanie flinched at his words. Even the thought of losing him was unbearable. She would always regret being forced to shed another person's blood, but she knew that she would do it again, over and over, if it guaranteed his safety.

She thought of Ranger's actions towards her over the years, the countless times that he had confessed his love for her without saying a word, his actions more binding than any spoken vow could ever be.

"I love you more every day," she choked through her tears, wrapping her arms around his neck.

His eyes crinkled around the edges, a warm smile lighting his face. "I'm counting on that."

He kissed her passionately, a kiss filled with promises for the future, and a love that would last forever.

Their nightmare was finally over.

Six months later …

Ranger helped Stephanie from the car, taking her hand in his, leading their way across the lawn. "Are you sure you want to do this, Babe?" He had been dreading this moment, terrified of the emotional toll that it would take on her.

She blew out a puff of air, firming her resolve, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. "Yeah … I NEED to do this." She knew that he was supporting her wishes but that he didn't quite grasp her motives. She needed him to understand why this meant so much to her.

"I've realized so much over the past few months. And, I've finally accepted that people will inevitably hurt me throughout my life, complete strangers, my enemies, even my loved ones, leaving scars on my body and my heart. In time the physical wounds will heal, the bruises will fade, and the bones will mend. But if I harbor these feelings of hurt and anger inside of me, reopening wounds and reliving nightmares, I am allowing their actions to hold me prisoner long after the damage is done. It's easier to maintain a grudge, to reinforce time and time again that I have been wronged, but by holding on to that pain I am preventing myself from healing, turning myself into a victim who is crippled by the past.

I AM a survivor and I will not live in fear. Derek Cain terrorized me in life but I will not allow his memory to haunt me in death. I'm choosing to let this go … I'm CHOOSING to live, and by doing so the past will not plague my future."

As they reached their destination she knelt down beside Cain's headstone, combing her fingers through the fresh cut grass along the edge of the granite slab. "I hope that you will find peace," she whispered softly, praying that her message would reach him somehow. "And, I want you to know that … I forgive you. Not for your sake, but for my own because I won't let the toxic hate that I have felt for you poison me any longer. And, so … I forgive you, and I hope that someday you'll find solace in your journey ahead."

She reached into her back pocket, retrieving the contents inside, placing Cain's diary on the center of the flat headstone. She opened the book of matches, dragging a single wooden stick across the edge of the pack, igniting a spark. She held the flame to the paper edge of the journal, watching it writhe and curl as it was consumed by the fire. It took a great deal of strength for her to forgive a man who had hurt her deeply. Tears streamed down her face, each drop releasing the anger and hatred that had been bottled inside of her, severing his power over her.

Ranger knelt beside her, rubbing soothing circles on her back, whispering words of love and comfort.

She raised her face to the sky, the sun burning a brilliant red behind her closed lids, bathing her skin in warmth. She felt lighter than she had in months, the heavy burden finally lifted from her shoulders. An inner peace washed over her, healing the wounds that had been festering for so long.

She opened her eyes, the sun glinting off of the diamond engagement ring on her finger, scattering rainbows across the lawn. She took a deep, cleansing breath, turning away from Cain's headstone, stepping out of the shackles of her past and into Ranger's waiting arms; embracing her future and the man who would share it with her.

The End.

*I hope that everyone has enjoyed Breaking of Souls. I'd love to hear your thoughts : )

* Thanks to everyone who has been reading and reviewing. Your feedback has meant so much to me : ) And, as always, a huge thank you to my Beta, Ryl, whose input has helped me tremendously.

Best Wishes for a Wonderful 2010!

Jen, A.K.A Batman's Bombshell