Free At Last

Disclaimer: Janet Evanovich owns Stephanie Plum and all of her family and friends. I just like to play around in her world.

A/N: Hi there! Although I've been writing fan fiction for a while in other fandoms (under a different penname), this is my first attempt at a Stephanie Plum story. One of the things I like to do at the beginnings of my chapters is to include quotes from the original books. The author's words help me to put things into a specific context or to set a certain mood. I hope you'll like it! :D

"You should be happy," I said to Ranger. "You solved your mystery."

"I was almost ruined by two goofy kids. I'm embarrassed."

"Whoa," I said. "That's an emotion."

"You don't think I have emotions?"

"I don't think you very often get embarrassed."

"It takes a lot," Ranger said.

Finger Lickin' Fifteen

Chapter 1: Party Pooper

Tank silently stood in the too-quiet control room and watched Ranger as Ranger watched the tiny blue blip on the status screen. Ricardo Carlos Manoso, also known as Ranger, Tank's long-time business partner, as well as his former commanding officer, was always in total control of his actions and decisions. However, at this moment, Carlos, Tank's best friend and 'partner in crime' was in the midst of an internal struggle over which he had no control.

There was an on-going battle raging around them - one that had no definite outcome at that precise moment. The enormous man stifled a tired sigh. It caused Tank great pain to know that, despite his own great physical strength and mental quickness, he was helpless to do anything about his friend's current situation.

Blinking bright blue against the dark gray screen, the blip which represented Stephanie Plum's personal tracking device was still in the same location where it had stopped after it left the RangeMan building earlier that evening - Joe Morelli's house. Never mind the fact that she had told Ranger she was going to return her father's cab and stay at her parent's house for the night. Tank glanced at the time-counter on the screen and discovered that the blip hadn't moved for the past three hours.

Stephanie had just helped Ranger and his security company, RangeMan, solve a huge problem. A couple of vindictive teenagers had used tiny cameras to spy on a variety of RangeMan's residential and industrial clients. After they acquired several security access codes, they robbed the targeted clients and caused a lot of damage to the company's previously stellar reputation. Stephanie figured out how the young men were stealing the codes and then, in that weird and lucky way of hers, she stumbled upon the ring-leader of the group at a near-by Starbucks and guided Ranger and his men to the thieves' low-rent lair.

It was a tremendous relief to discover that no one from inside the RangeMan 'family' had been responsible for the string of break-ins. Suspicions had run high in the office until Stephanie verified that none of the Merry Men could have committed the crimes. Now everyone knew that they could trust each other the way they had done before all the trouble started.

When Tank returned from handing the clever young criminals over to the police, he thought that the control room would be filled with celebratory chatter and playfulness. Instead, the atmosphere felt heavy with anxiety and embarrassment. And Tank knew the reason for it. Obviously, everybody else did, too.

"Ranger," Tank said quietly. "A word, please? In private?"

The two men left the control room and entered Ranger's office. Tank quietly closed the door behind him and then sat across from Ranger on the opposite side of his large desk. Ranger did not relax in his chair and neither man spoke or broke eye contact for a long moment.

"Speak." Ranger finally said in his clipped efficiency. His dark eyes looked tired and Tank wondered just how long his friend had been staring at the status screen, waiting for the blip to move.

"The computer whiz-kids are locked up," Tank reported. "It's all squared away for tonight, but the cops'll need you and Stephanie to go in and give full statements in the morning."

"Hooah." (Translation: "Thanks, Tank. I appreciate the fact that you always do a good job. I'll take care of the rest of it tomorrow.")

"So ... what happened this time? Why did she go back to Morelli's place?"

Ranger pressed his lips together tightly until they were a thin straight line. Tank didn't ordinarily ask any questions about Ranger's odd triangular relationship with Stephanie Plum and Joe Morelli. He'd always accepted that his friend/boss was quite proficient in the romance department. What Ranger did or did not do in the privacy of his own apartment was none of Tank's business anyway. Except ... except this time, something felt very different.

In fact, Tank could sense it in his bones that something had gone wrong between Ranger and Stephanie while he was making his delivery to the Trenton police station. After all, he had seen the way the flirtatious couple gazed hungrily at each other when they thought no one was watching. In fact, anyone who'd had monitor duty at RangeMan had witnessed the couple kissing and pawing at each other in the garage, in the hallway, in the elevator, everywhere. Stephanie had even moved in with Ranger after her apartment was firebombed - again. No one doubted their mutual attraction, so why was Bomber back at the cop's house?

"Drop it." Ranger finally said, hoping against hope that Tank would comply with his request.

"No, sir. I can't drop it. This ... situation ... is affecting the men's morale. They should be celebrating right now - we all should - but the control room is as silent as a tomb. What do you think is going to happen when Bomber comes back to work tomorrow? Stephanie's one of us now. She should be in your bed, Ranger, not his."

"I don't want to talk about it. You, of all people, should understand that. You know that I can't give her what he can give her. I don't like it, but this is the way it has to be."

"Screw that, Ranger!" Now Tank was angry. "No one in his right mind would put up with this back-and-forth crap!"

"Who says I'm in my right mind?"

This time Tank allowed himself to blow out a long sigh. "Dr. O'Neill's next visit is in two weeks. He's gonna run all the tests again. Someday ... we'll be free to ... to have normal lives. Everything will be fine. Maybe it'll be sooner than you think. Hell, our old team has already recovered faster than anyone else who was on that messed-up mission."

"In all ways except the one that makes us men."

"Damn it all, Ranger!" Tank spoke through clenched teeth. "You're the one who's always told us to keep the faith. You're the one who's always ensured that we all ate right and got the right balance of work, exercise and down-time to build up our strength again. Now you're the one who's bringing us down! We won tonight, but no one's celebrating the victory because of what's going on - or rather, not going on - between you and Stephanie."

"I said I don't want to talk about it." Ranger's voice was barely audible through his clenched teeth.

Knowing that he was pushing his luck, Tank shook his head and turned toward the door. "Well, do us all a favor, sir, and stay up on the seventh floor for the rest of the night. Now that we know there won't be any more break-ins, you can get some decent rest."

"Fine." Ranger said. "I'm offline, then. I'll be in my apartment."

Before Tank left the office, he looked at Ranger and said, "I was thinking that the men deserve to have a little fun, so I brought back some snacks and a case of soda for the guys on monitor duty and a mini-keg for the ones who are off duty right now."

"Hooah," Ranger said and he nodded slightly. (Translation: "You're right, old friend. Sorry I'm being such an ass right now. Go ahead and have some fun. I'll stay out of your way.")

"And Ranger," Tank said as he slid through the doorway, "I'll let you know when the blip on the screen moves again. She'll come back to you in good time - she always does."

A/N: I've always wondered why Ranger keeps pushing Stephanie back into Morelli's arms, especially since he clearly loves her - and not just in his own way. This story, which takes place immediately after FLF, offers an explanation (eventually) for the Man of Mystery's actions. I've been around the Army (and in it, too) all of my life and soldiers use the word "Hooah" as a catch-all phrase to mean anything from "I understand and will comply with your orders" to "Damn skippy!" Throughout this story, I plan to translate what the characters mean when they say "Hooah." Please let me know what you think. Thanks! :D