JE gets all the credit for the characters below. I get all the blame for the mess this story is going to put them in.
Jenny (JenRar) how did I get so lucky? You are truly an up for anything beta, and I consider myself quite fortunate to be able to work with you. Thank you.
Dina (aydinbydin), this story is definitely because of you. Thank you for asking about the possibility, encouraging me when I began to think about it, and letting me test out scenes on you. You're a great encourager, idea bouncer, and friend. Thanks!
A/N: I don't like to begin stories with long notes, but wanted to be upfront on this story in particular. This will be a mature fic, depicting a non-traditional relationship. If that idea is offensive, please do not bother reading any further. That being said, if you decide to take a chance on this story…thank you! I wanted to try something different, and this won't be a ride like any I've written before.
Chapter 1 – A Little History
I grabbed a big bag of plain M&Ms and poured them over the top of a freshly popped bowl of popcorn, giving the heat from the corn a chance to soften the chocolate and create the perfect late night snack to go with the final half hour of the Ranger's game on TV. I'd been waiting for Bobby to get in before calling it a night, but I needed something to do to keep me from falling asleep, and a little snack seemed like the perfect idea. Besides, since my partner wasn't here, he couldn't complain about me ruining what he would consider a healthy snack by mixing chocolate in with it.
I'd just finished the first fistful when the sound of the key in the lock alerted me that I'd waited too long to start snacking. I sat there waiting to see what kind of shape Bobby was in after his third late night call out in a row. The guy had to be exhausted, but I knew better than to think he'd actually admit to it.
"Hey, man," I called out when the door closed so he'd know I was up. "Want some popcorn?"
Bobby came over and sat – or rather, collapsed – beside me on the sofa and stuck his hand blindly in the bowl, transferring the treat to his mouth without looking first. After chewing, he made a face and asked, "Why would you ruin a perfectly good snack with candy?"
"Don't get huffy with me because you don't understand the importance of taste and nutrition mixed together," I warned him with a smile, loving the fact that I knew him well enough to know he'd be annoyed with my combination.
Bobby picked out the remaining M&Ms in his hand, tossing them back in the bowl, before finishing off what he had taken out, and then laid his head back on the couch and shut his eyes.
"What was it this time?" I asked, knowing that despite his exhaustion, he wouldn't go to sleep until he'd relived whatever he'd done tonight to clear his conscience that he'd done everything the right way. Bobby wasn't exactly what I'd call anal, but he was particular enough that when he was trusted by the guys to patch them up, he took that responsibility seriously.
"Stephanie," he replied, giving me an answer I was absolutely not expecting.
"What happened?" I blurted out, my mind going through every possible worst case scenario.
He let out a long deep breath, which did nothing to ease my sense of panic.
"Distraction tonight," he started, before rubbing his eyes with this thumb and forefinger. "Hal saw Jacobson at Johnny's Bar and called Ranger, since the time is nearly out to get him."
I ran the name in my memory and got a hit easily. "Jacobson, as in the guy who liked to play with knives and women?"
Bobby's eyes opened so he could turn his head to look at me. "That's the one."
"Why would Ranger let her get within ten feet of Jacobson?" I couldn't stop myself from asking.
"He had a plan to nab him before Steph could be in danger," Bobby explained, without actually telling me anything. I knew better than to think my cousin would intentionally put Stephanie in danger, but this seemed to be tempting fate to bite her in the ass.
I waited and Bobby kept talking. "She lured him out easy enough, but Ranger told her no matter what she was to keep walking and not look back. After she cleared the door, she heard Jacobson say Ranger's name, and according to her, he said it in a mean way."
My face broke into a smile over that. Only Stephanie would describe a violent man as using a mean voice. I didn't even need him to finish. "Let me guess," I interrupted. "She turned around and put herself in front of Ranger."
Bobby's lips turned up like mine had. "Got it in one," he confirmed. "She put herself in front of Ranger just as Jacobson lunged with the knife. Hal was behind Jacobson and grabbed him in time to keep it from being worse. He got her in the chest, but it missed everything vital, leaving her with a nasty gash about three inches long."
"St. Francis?" I asked, even though I knew better.
Bobby laughed without much real humor in the sound. "She flat out refused, despite the blood dripping down her chest. Ranger had to head out for a mission; he was only there to keep an eye on Stephanie before leaving town, so he couldn't really insist on it and take her there anyway. I volunteered to bring her back here and stitched her up downstairs."
"What a shame to have that chest marred with a scar," I commented. It wouldn't take away from her looks, but I knew it would bother her just the same.
Bobby sat up a little, pretending to take offense. "Man, give me a little credit. I said I stitched her up, and I gave her my absolute best work. Tiny stitches take more time, but they'll minimize the scaring. I'll watch over it to be sure there aren't any issues, and in a couple of months, I bet you won't even be able to tell where he got her."
I grinned, proud of his skills, having seen them more times than I cared to remember first hand. "All right," I placated him. "Don't get in a wad over there; I'm sure you did her right."
"Damn straight," he replied under his breath, before adding, "If it had been one of the guys, I'd have slapped eight stitches on it in the parking lot and sent them back with care instructions. But this was Stephanie; she deserves better."
I couldn't help but notice the reverent way he said her name. It's not something I could fault him for; I did the same thing.
We were both quiet for a while, working through the bowl of popcorn, with me eating all the M&Ms Bobby discarded. "You know, this would have been just as good without the chocolate," he commented offhandedly.
"Stephanie would appreciate the chocolate," I defended my culinary decision.
Bobby chuckled at that. "The next time she's over here, I'll help you make it for her."
I stopped eating with my hand frozen in mid air as I pictured her on the couch between us, snacking from the bowl. Bobby grew quiet at the same time, and I had a gut feeling he was thinking about the same thing.
Bobby and I had known each other for nearly twelve years and had been at RangeMan together for the last seven. During that time, we'd seen each other through some rough shit – the worst the world had to offer and we'd lived to tell about it. Well, maybe not tell about it, because most of it was classified, but to have it haunt our dreams just the same. I think a man can only face so much of the evil in the world before it begins to affect him. For some guys, it turns them hard and cold; others begin to think that only extreme violence will end the fighting, and they flip out into an area there is no returning from. But for others, we develop our own system of dealing with what we have endured, and while it might not fit with what Freud or Jung would call healthy, it keeps us ticking and functioning from day to day.
Most of RangeMan fell into this last category. Some of them were too young and/or fortunate to have seen the worst of it, so they were still innocent enough to not have a clue what humanity was capable of doing to itself. But the core team understood, and we didn't judge the coping mechanisms any of us used, because we knew what had caused us to need them in the first place.
Tank got in touch with his softer side. He spent all day as Mr. Guns and Ammo centerfold, and then left the office every night and went home to cuddle his kittens. It was a strange image, but knowing he was caring for something pure and good motivated him to get through whatever he had to each day and reminded him what he was fighting for. He also said he could talk to them, and all they did was purr in return. No complaints, no judgment, just love and acceptance. I used to give him hell by pointing out that of the core team, he was the only one that turned to pussy everyday for comfort, but after getting knocked out over it enough, it lost some of the humor for me.
Ranger was a little harder to peg. He pulled away from most people and isolated himself. Being the leader that he is, everybody was drawn to my cousin, but he shielded himself and refused to let anybody get under his skin. Stephanie had come the closest of anybody on this Earth, getting in more than his own daughter. But still, he held fast to the rule that he wasn't really relationship material and that he couldn't commit to anything real with her. Those of us who knew him knew he loved her; it was just in his own way. My guess was that in his mind, loving her meant protecting her from any threat, and he classified himself as the chief threat among all the possibilities.
To keep himself in line, he had all these rigid rules to live under that he refused to bend. The way he structured his day, his diet, his work out regimen – everything he did was precise and perfectly in line with his own code of behavior. Even for Stephanie, he wouldn't bend his rules and give himself to her. I knew he feared what would happen to him if he released even a small measure of his control. Only somebody from the outside would call him callous for feeling that way, but those of us who had been through the same experiences understood. If he wanted to keep his demons in their proper locked and hidden positions, then he couldn't risk letting go, not even for the possibility of something great.
Bobby's method used to be found at the bottom of a bottle. We'd come back from a mission, and he'd hit a bar and drink until he was near passing out, literally speeding the booze into his body before his liver and brain could process what he was doing. He'd get a taxi home and pass out in his own bed. Then the next morning, he'd eventually wake up, hurl, and drag his sorry, hung over ass to the gym and work out until his hangover left him. Then he'd collapse in his apartment for another night. After two days worth of suffering, he was able to keep it together and could reenter society.
I used to go to the bar with Bobby but I never drank. Instead, I scoped out the joint and found the best looking piece of ass I could find that I thought could tolerate a one night stand with some edge and kink to it. Then I'd bang them all night long and leave while they were passed out in exhaustion, then I'd join Bobby in the gym the next morning. It was crude, but I needed that physical exertion to get myself zoned out and focused on something other than the bloodshed and the death I'd been surrounded by on assignment.
And then, our old methods stopped working. About five years ago, after what I think we'd both classify as the worst mission of our lives, we'd come back to Trenton, barely hanging on. We'd gone to the bar together, and Bobby had started up with his shots. I'd spun around and hadn't seen a single thing I thought could handle what I needed to dish out. I'd realized that at the same moment the new bartender had decided to warn Bobby that he needed to slow down. That had made me really consider the man sitting on the stool to my left, and I'd realized that except when he came home from missions, he never drank. His apartment was booze free, and he was the first one to lecture the guys about the damage alcohol would do to their systems.
I'd asked him before why he didn't just pick up somebody – guy, girl, whatever – like I did, but he'd said he couldn't do it. He couldn't have sex with someone without there being an emotional connection of some sort, and a one night stand with somebody he knew he never wanted to see again held no appeal at all.
That night, I'd asked him why he hit the sauce after a mission, and he'd actually answered me, which had told me right away that he was already a little buzzed.
"When I pass out, I don't have any dreams – no memories. Then when I wake up, everything hurts too much to dwell on anything but putting one foot in front of the other."
Damn, if I couldn't completely relate to that. I engaged in dirty sex for nearly the same reason. When I was banging something, all I could think about was my next release, so there was no room in my head for any images of death and destruction.
I threw a wad of cash to cover Bobby's tab and grabbed him by the elbow, dragging him out with me. He obviously wasn't done drinking, because he complained all the way back to Haywood. When we got back to his apartment, he was pissy, and since I'd broken my own habit of dealing with the adrenaline and mission let down, I was getting edgy in return. In the end, he gave me one too many complaints, and I drew back my fist and hit him. It wasn't my finest moment, admittedly, but it was bound to happen, with two guys still juiced in fight mode. He responded by reflex alone and cracked my lip open. When I spun back around to face him, he was wiping his chin with the back of his hand. For some reason, it was like the smack to the head had done something to my vision, and I saw him – really saw him – for the first time.
I almost hit him again, but after I noticed that Bobby Brown was actually a great looking guy, and knowing what those hands and muscles were capable of doing – both on a mission and off – I reacted animalisticly and rushed him, knocking him backward like a football player would a tackling dummy. When his back hit the wall, I covered his mouth with mine, and I kissed him.
The first three seconds, he just stood there with his hands up like he was showing me he was unarmed and not a threat. But the moment my tongue traced over his lip, removing the small trickle of blood still present from my initial strike, something snapped in him, as well, and he kissed me back, grabbing my shirt and pulling me to him tightly enough that I heard the material in the back ripping. I can't begin to detail what happened next, because it was such a flurry of desperation, but I do know that for the next three hours, we used our bodies to soothe the beasts that prowled just below the surface for us both. It was raw and primal, as neither of us had to hold back or worry about hurting the other.
After that, we collapsed on the floor beside the bed and didn't wake up until the sun had risen. I couldn't remember ever sleeping that long, or that soundly, after a mission. While I was pondering why a night with Bobby was so different, he started to wake up, too. At first, he looked confused but when his eyes focused on me, he smiled a little and shut his eyes again, as though just knowing I was there was enough to relax him back to sleep.
I wasn't sure what to do with that reaction. Bobby was the guy that watched over all of us, and having him entrust himself to me made me want to sit up a little more and wake up to do a better job as his sentinel.
Then the reality of the situation set in and I began to freak out. What in the hell had I done? Bobby had made it clear in the past he didn't do emotionless sex. Did that mean he had a thing for me I'd never known about? Somehow, I found that hard to believe, even though I'd always suspected he preferred men over women, I rarely saw him with either to know for sure.
I didn't want to lose the friendship we had, and screwing your best friend was a near guaranteed way to do just that. I was torn between wanting to wake him up to tell him that I was sorry for attacking him and wanting him to sleep longer so that I could ignore the whole situation and hope he'd had just enough booze in him to not remember what happened.
Eventually, I shut my eyes and when I woke up again, my head was on Bobby's chest, and he was doing something strange to my hair. I'd never had a guy play with my hair. Hell, I'd barely had women do it. The kind of sex I usually engaged in didn't lend itself to much cuddling after. But lying here in the safety of RangeMan with one of the few people I absolutely trusted in this world, it felt…nice. So, I just stayed there and let him do it.
Bobby broke the spell by speaking. "Look, man, I don't exactly know what happened here last night..."
My eyes shot open at that confession. Maybe I'd get lucky and he wouldn't remember the fists and the time I bent him over the back of the couch, moving the sofa with each hard thrust.
He burst that bubble of hope by continuing, "...but the fact that my jaw hurts and my ass is begging me to not even attempt to sit down tells me what I at first thought was one hell of a good wet dream must have really happened."
I looked him in the eye, wanting to be a man about it, refusing to hide in fear. Because I'd broken with my usual way of coping, I was about to lose my closest friend. This was going to hurt – bad.
"And whatever that was definitely wasn't our usual way of dealing with a mission, but it feels like it worked for me because I'm not on edge, and I feel…I don't know…spent – but in a good way."
I couldn't help but smile at his less than eloquent summary. And in considering it quickly, I felt the same way. My body was used to working out, so spending time in the gym wouldn't feel forced now, but I didn't feel like I needed it right away to get my focus back.
"I know that sex can kill a friendship and I refuse to let that happen, so unless you disagree, I think we should call this what it was and not talk it to death. We helped each other decompress and get over the shit of what we've been through – nothing more, nothing less. The fact that it was amazing is just proof of how badly we needed it, but I know you aren't gay, and I don't want you having a panic attack the next time I have to give you a tetanus shot in your ass for fear that I'll be coming after you with more than just a needle when you drop your pants and bend over."
That brought a laugh out of me, and all of a sudden, it wasn't weird and it wasn't forced. This was a one off. And despite his classification of my sexuality not being exactly true, I didn't disagree with anything else. In truth, I didn't have a preference – male or female. I tended to hook up with whoever I thought was capable of handling me. It was merely chance that it tended to be women I picked up when I was around the guys and when I was on the prowl alone, I found myself leaving with another man. I was attracted to strength, not gender.
"Thanks," I lamely responded, still not making an effort to get up.
We stayed as we were on the carpet of my apartment for another fifteen minutes, until Bobby shifted and I knew our time together was coming to a close. I reluctantly rolled over and got up, offering my hand to him and smiling with some form of male satisfaction when he grimaced upon standing.
"You gonna be all right?" I teased.
"Laugh it up, man," he shot back, "but I wasn't exactly gentle with you, either, so I wouldn't suggest you sit down hard anytime soon."
I put my hand on the back of his neck and squeezed a little, thinking it was a strangely warm way to touch someone and wondering why it felt so easy with Bobby, when I'd always shied away from such intimacy in the past.
For the next week, life went on at RangeMan as usual. Skips were brought in, accounts were monitored, and reports were filed, all in a day's work. But the following Saturday, I was edgy again. I'd gone out Friday with a group of guys and felt off my game, electing to leave without picking up anybody. I'd spent the evening in the gym instead, as a weak substitute for the kind of release I needed.
The next night, I was climbing the walls until a knock sounded on my door. I opened it, both surprised and relieved to see Bobby standing there with a pizza box and a DVD. He walked in when I stepped back, and the first words out of his mouth cracked me up. "This ain't a date, but I'm losing my mind and needed somebody to hang out with."
I totally got that, so I gladly accepted his pizza, despite the fact it had pineapple on it, and we settled down to watch Gladiator. When it was over, I felt better, but there was still an itch just under my skin that I wasn't sure how to scratch.
We turned our heads to each other at the exact same moment, and as soon as our eyes locked, something snapped. Before I could register the fact I was moving, I'd pinned Bobby against the back of the sofa and had my tongue down his throat. Luckily, he gave as good as he got, and after a few rounds with him, we once again collapsed in a heap.
The next morning, we were a tangle of limbs in my bed, with me having slept better than I had all week on my own. Whatever Bobby and I did to each other had a calming power I didn't understand, but it was obviously needed.
Over the next two months, we'd found a way to hook up every weekend and a couple of times during the week, as well.
And then it happened. That turning point that I think every couple has where they can look back and say that was the defining moment in how they went from whatever they'd been to what they are now. It was a bleak January, and every scum I'd been sent to bring in had been hacking and coughing with whatever was going around. I tended to stay healthy, so I just got in there and got the job done. I'd asked Bobby that Saturday morning in the gym if he wanted to watch a movie at my place that night. He'd smiled and said he'd bring over a DVD before leaving for his own workout. We both had known he'd come over with some action flick, and we'd put in the player for appearance's sake. And we'd both known that before the first word of dialogue was spoken, one or both of us would be naked.
But by that afternoon, I'd felt like absolute shit – achy with chills, feeling clammy, and coughing. I rarely got sick, but when it happened, it was usually horrible, and I'd finally had to lie down in my bed and just quit fighting it. I hadn't had the strength to call Bobby and cancel for the evening, hoping when I didn't answer his knock that night, he'd get the message and go back to his place. I blame my fever for such a stupid thought. When I hadn't answered, he'd just picked the lock and let himself in, not stopping until he'd found me.
I don't remember it but Ranger told me later that my fever was at 104 when Bobby found me. He'd gone into major medic mode, stripping me down and throwing my passed out ass in the tub to lower the fever. He'd stayed by my side for the next forty-eight hours, only leaving me to run to the john, or answer the door when Ella brought us food. When I'd started coming back to the land of the living, I remember focusing on his worried face and blurting out, "You look like shit."
He'd smiled and responded, "Hurry up and get better so I can make you pay for not only insulting me, but for being the cause of it."
Somehow I'd known he'd been with me all that time, going so far above and beyond what he'd ever done for any of the other guys. That act had cut off my ability to say that what we shared was just sex for the purpose of getting rid of the tension and adrenaline our lives brought. He cared about me. And half dazed in my bed, I'd been able to admit that I felt the same way. If the roles had been reversed, I'd have tried to do the same thing for him. I hadn't been able to figure out what to say to let him know how honored I was that he'd stayed with me, so I'd just reached out and found his hand, taking it in mine and holding on tightly.
Bobby had covered our joined hands with his and said only, "You're welcome."
We'd never defined it, but there was no denying my illness had changed what we had. After that, in the privacy of our apartments, we touched each other, not just as a prelude to sex, but as a confirmation the other was all right, as a greeting, as a comfort. We'd never said we were a committed couple but neither of us even looked at other people, so defined or not, it's what we were.
It took another month before the guys had caught on. While we weren't ashamed of what we had, we didn't advertise it outside our apartments, either. I was coming back from an install at a client when my phone had beeped with an alert that somebody needed assistance and shots had been fired, bringing down one of our guys. I'd turned around, hating the idea of somebody from RangeMan getting hurt and wanting to be sure the jackass responsible was brought down. Plus, I'd partnered with Bobby in the field plenty over the years and had picked up enough medical skills to assist him if the guy who'd been hit was seriously injured.
I got out of my truck the second I put it in park and rushed over to where Ranger was standing, with Cal and Brett both looking at someone on the ground. I looked around for Bobby, figuring he'd be giving care to whoever was on the ground, but I couldn't see him. Jogging over, Ranger met me halfway and put a hand on my shoulder to stop me. I thought it was odd, but I gave him my attention in case he needed me to do something specific. Instead, his expression told me whatever he was about to say was something I wasn't going to like.
"Slow down and give them room to work," Ranger said, tilting his head to Cal and Brett. Both had basic first aid training, but neither one of them had my knowledge, so I didn't bother hiding my confusion at his statement.
Then it hit me. Bobby wasn't working on the guy because Bobby wasthe guy on the ground. I caught Ranger off guard and pushed him away enough to get by him and get to the body on the asphalt. Bobby's usually dark skin was looking ashy, and the blood all over his shirt told me the bullet in his gut had hit something major. Later, I would remember screaming a sound that even to my shock-filled ears sounded barbaric, and then pushing Brett out of the way so that I could put my hand on Bobby's stomach and get a feel for the damage.
I started talking, unable to stop myself, knowing that just because his eyes weren't open didn't mean he couldn't hear me. I blabbered constantly, demanding he not die, and confessed how much I needed him to hang on. I told him how much he meant to me and how he'd brought me back from the cycle of self destruction I'd been on – how I owed him my life to go with my heart, since he seemed to already have that.
When I saw him struggling to open his eyes, I bent down closer and kissed his lips to assure him I was there. As the ambulance pulled up behind us, he managed to say, "Love you, Lester," before passing out.
The professionals had taken over, giving him the care he needed, and I'd jumped in the back of the wagon to ride to the ER, still holding Bobby's hand. It had taken four days for the doctors to agree to let him sign himself out of the hospital, as long as he was going to have someone to see to his care. I had taken that responsibility and had asked Ranger if Bobby and I could have one of the two bedroom apartments at RangeMan. He'd smiled and agreed with a single nod, saying he'd have all our shit moved before we got home later that afternoon. And just that simply, we'd moved in together.
We still didn't exactly flaunt what we have, but after my confession in front of Cal and Brett, everybody knew. The only person that had said anything was Hector, who'd been pissed that I hadn't told him I was open to a relationship with a man. I'd had to correct him that I didn't know I was open to a relationship at all. I assumed it was the fact that it was the right man that had convinced me to give it a try.
For the last five years, we'd lived in this two bedroom apartment, using one room for storage, and the other as our shared bedroom. When one of us was on the edge, we knew exactly what to do to level that off and the security that came with never having to temper our reactions or needs out of fear that they would be overwhelming to the other brought such a freedom to us both that we'd never looked back.
I shook my head to get out of memory lane and back to the man beside me, who had his hand full of popcorn but wasn't moving. I knew I had to have Bobby in my life. I wasn't safe without him by my side to keep me level, and I couldn't be happy without him. But just the mention of having Stephanie in our home made me pause and wonder, ever so briefly, if what we had could use a little softness sometimes, too.