A/N: This is just a crazy little idea we had. It's labeled romance, though maybe it's not your typical romance. It has a little Diesel, but it's not a Diesel fic—it's very much Babe. And some might consider it AU … but it's not that AU if you read JE's 'Between the Numbers' books. Whatever it is, we hope you enjoy it!
The alarm went off at eight, though I couldn't remember why I'd set it. After a night like I'd had -- which had involved a skip that had dragged me through the mud for an entire city block before I'd tagged his ass, a pocket call from my grandma's cell where I could hear my grandma yelling "harder, Bernard, harder", and a message from Joe saying he was back in town, I needed sleep.
I also needed a donut, but I'd given them up. Most of the time I was good with the changes I'd made to my life since Joe and I had taken a break three months ago. But once in awhile, like now, I'd give my right nipple for a donut.
I'd give up both for sex.
At the thought, an involuntary smile crossed my face. I had a feeling I was very close to getting some. Since I'd begun hitting the gun range weekly and taking self defense classes at a local martial arts school, there'd been a definite change in the way Ranger looked at me.
Oh, the playfulness was still there. The stolen kisses in the alley, the touches meant to ignite. But now there was something more.
It was in his molten chocolate eyes, the sense that he was looking at me differently. And then there'd been the phone calls just to say hi. And at least every few days, he grabbed me and took me for lunch or dinner. Last night, he'd even watched The Ugly Truth with me on DVD. He'd laughed at the "flick the bean" line and sent me a searing gaze, leaning in to put his mouth to my ear. "Do you flick the bean, Babe?"
I had last night. Twice.
Truth was, I had no idea what was happening between us, but I was definitely on board for the ride. And maybe, somehow, I'd get the balls to tell him how I felt about him, how I'd felt about him for years.
I was searching all the drawers for the coffee filter, bending low to do it, when I smelled cookies and Christmas, and heard a very male growl of appreciation. Oh, no. Hell, no. Straightening, I turned and came face to face with – no surprise – Diesel.
What was a surprise was the small boy next to him. Diesel was covering the kid's eyes with one big hand and grinning broadly, reminding me I'd just gotten out of bed and wore only one of Ranger's black t-shirts, which I'd stolen out of his closet, and a thong.
"Nice," Diesel said, tightening his grip on the boy. "Real nice. Victoria Secret, fall catalog, page twenty."
I stared at him, tugging the hem of my shirt down. "What are you doing here? It's not Christmas—No." I shook my head violently. "Whatever it is, whatever you need, no. Every time you show up, my life turns into a living hell."
"Cutie Pie, your life is a living hell all on its own. And I'm only here for a teeny, tiny little favor. I just need you to… uh …" He turned the kid away from me before removing his hand from his eyes and nudging him toward the bathroom. "Give us a minute, Kid. And remember to use BOTH hands this time."
When we heard the door shut, Diesel's easy smile vanished. "Look, I just need you to baby-sit for an hour tops."
Tall, built like a linebacker turned surfer, Diesel was blonde and gorgeous and had a smile that could charm the granny panties off a nun.
But not me. "I don't baby-sit."
"I'll pay you."
"With what, Christmas cookies?"
Diesel seemed to think about that for a moment and then I saw that damn twinkle in his eyes. "Sex?" he asked hopefully.
My eyes narrowed to slits.
"Cookies and sex?" he offered.
Hmm. It had been a long time … I shook my head to clear it. "No."
Diesel blew out a sigh. "Look, we don't really have time to barter right now." He dug in his pockets and pulled out three matchbox cars, a handful of green army men, some string and two small rocks. Leaning across me, he placed them on the counter.
I eyed the pile and said, "What? No snips? No snails?"
Diesel smiled fleetingly before his face got serious, which was kinda scary because Diesel doesn't pull off serious very well. He said, "There's been a … teeny little temporary glitch with the spsstmmctinumnmmmm."
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that last part."
He looked up at the ceiling and rubbed at his jaw, his overgrown whiskers making rasping noises against his calloused hand. He sighed, "Space/Time Continuum."
Arms crossed over my chest, I leaned my rump against the counter. "Uh-huh."
"Steph, it happens."
Of course it does.
Just then we heard the toilet flush and the bathroom door open.
Diesel hollered, "Wash your hands!"
We both heard a very put-upon sigh echo down the short hall. When the water cut on, I said, "So just an hour."
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Diesel looked at the floor, unwilling to hold my gaze.
"Oh, come on! I have to work today."
The boy shuffled down the hall and came just to the edge of the kitchen. He, too, was looking at his feet. I took a moment to study him. He was reed thin and looked to be somewhere between six and eight. By his coloring, I'd guess he was Hispanic. His hair was silky and long and somewhere between rich dark brown and black, and though his hair was covering half his face, I could see from his bone structure that he was a striking young child, almost pretty.
He seemed shy, so I just blurted, "I'm Stephanie. What's your name?"
The child looked up and I felt like I'd just taken a round to the gut. His coloring wasn't just Hispanic. It was mocha latte. His bone structure was beyond familiar. And his eyes, God help me, his eyes were soft chocolate pools almost as familiar to me as my own.
He looked just like Ranger.
Inexplicably, I felt tears prickle behind my eyes. Did Ranger have another child he never told me about? What was Ranger's relationship to his mother? For God's sake, he told me about Julie long before we'd ever become lovers. Why would he hold back on telling me about this child?
I thought he trusted me.
I don't know if it was his supernatural abilities, or more likely, my inability to keep my thoughts from my face, but Diesel seemed to know exactly when my thoughts had careened into dangerously incorrect territories.
Diesel scooped the army men off the counter and handed them to the boy, then told him to make himself comfy on the sofa.
Stepping back to me, he tugged at my wrist and said quietly, "Not his son."
I blinked up at Diesel, ignoring the fact that the action released a tear. "He's not?" I croaked.
He shook his head slowly.
I felt the knot in my chest unravel a little.
I snorted and wiped at my face. "I thought you were in a hurry. Just tell me who he is already."
Putting his hands on my shoulders, he bent at the knees and looked me dead in the eyes. "Ricardo Carlos Manoso, version 7.0."
And this is the part where I tell you that my vision got fuzzy and little black dots danced in front of my eyes, but quite frankly, I fainted before any of that could happen.
I came awake to utter panic as thoughts jumbled for attention in my brain. Diesel. Babysitting …
Maybe it was all a bad dream. Yeah, that was it. A really bad dream brought on by a decided lack of sex. But when I opened my eyes, things were still dark.
Crap. I'd put myself into a coma.
Then suddenly the darkness lifted and fathomless dark eyes in a drawn, worried little face filled my vision.
Ranger, version 7.0.
He was holding a cool washcloth, which he'd clearly been using on my forehead. Even as a child, Ranger took care of me. I felt my throat tighten at the thought.
He took my hand and tried to pull me up, which I thought was incredibly sweet. "Thank you," I started, stopping when he let go of my hand as quick as possible and peered behind me, anxiously gathering up …
Army men. I'd been lying on his army men. "Sorry."
"They're okay," he said with relief and I bit back my smile. Ranger, worried about his men. Shock. "Where's Diesel?" I asked.
He lifted a bony shoulder. "Said he had to pop out."
Terrific. If he'd left me alone with a regular kid, I'd have been freaking out. But this was no regular kid, it was Batman, minus twenty-three years, and it was beyond my comprehension. A small glitch in the space/time continuum? I had no idea what that even meant!
Ranger 7.0 was shifting uncomfortably, staring at me while pretending not to. His straight nearly black hair was falling into his eyes and he shoved it back like it irritated him.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"I'm not the one who fainted."
His voice was a little boy's voice, not a man's, and the accent was a little thicker, but he sounded so much like Ranger that my heart ached. "I don't usually faint," I said. "I—I was startled."
"Because of me." His beautiful eyes were mistrustful, but he lifted his chin, already getting a good head start on the shielding of his emotions that his older self would have in spades.
"No," I started, but he met my gaze straight on, trying to be brave, though he was clearly scared and confused. "Do you know where you are?"
"No." He looked down at his army men clutched in his hand. "I don't remember getting here."
My heart tightened at the fear he was struggling so hard with. "Ranger— "
Mental head slap for the slip-up. This little boy, Ricardo Carlos Manoso from Newark, had no idea who 'Ranger' was; he was simply seven-year-old Carlos. "Not important," I said.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his narrow shoulders. "I want to go home now."
"Soon," I said, and hoped to God that was true. "You hungry?"
He nodded, and we went into the kitchen where I made a grilled cheese sandwich with peanut butter. Hey, it worked for me when I was stressed out.
But he just stared at it.
"It's good," I said.
"Do you have an apple? Or a salad?"
I resisted the urge to thunk my head on the counter. "We'll go to the store, but this is it for now."
"'Kay. Do you have marshmallows?"
Well, apparently he did have some normal in him. "Yes. Marshmallows are a staple." I leaned in close to give him a handful and his gaze slid to my breasts, not exactly encumbered in Ranger's loose t-shirt and no bra. He blushed.
I sighed. "How old are you, seven?"
"And a half," he said very seriously. "Almost three quarters."
I couldn't hold in the smile, which faded quick enough when the locks tumbled, and in walked … Joe.