Disclaimer: All the characters you recognize from the Stephanie Plum books belong to Janet Evanovich. The Inferna Angelus' on the other hand are solely mine as is the tiny terror tiger that rules them.

Please be aware that English is not my mothertongue. I will write, check, and re-check this story to my best ability but I know the misspelling gremlin is lurking around, trying to trick me. Help me to chase him away by notifying me of recurring faults - thank you.


Prologue

Ranger's POV

What a night, I thought as I entered my apartment on ten after I'd parted from Bobby and Rodríguez. Tank, Lester and I were sitting in my office going over outstanding bonds when Bobby called and asked us to come upstairs to his apartment. I was immediately hit by a bad feeling. I had met Agony and Revenge earlier that afternoon and asked them where they'd found Rodríguez; they just looked at me and remained silent. I didn't expect the Inferna Angelus to show me obedience like I expected it from my men but the way they behaved it was obvious that they kept quiet about something. When Tank, Lester and I entered Bobby's apartment on eight and saw likewise confused and wary Cal, Ram and Woody already sitting in the living room, we knew for sure that this wasn't a work related meeting.

With the lifestyle I led and the missions I did I couldn't afford private entanglements but if I was to name my friends, there would be only four people coming to my mind – Tank, Lester, Bobby and Rodríguez. I remember his burial. His family was devastated, we all were. It felt as if a part of our souls had died. We called him Hot-Rod back then; he and Lester were the jokesters and ladies' men of our group. Nobody could charm the pants of any given woman like the two of them and god, did they use their talent to the fullest. By the life of me I couldn't count the angry women the rest of us had to deflect to save their sorry asses. And every time they simply showed us their impish grins, their eyes already set on the next chick.

Seeing Rodríguez's casket vanishing into the ground we all knew that nothing would be the same ever again. The Trenton branch didn't exist back then so when we got back to Miami we picked up work but we felt empty, Bobby especially. He was fighting to keep functioning but everybody could see how forlorn and weary of life he was.

Flashback

I had watched Bobby the whole morning via the security cams. After the morning meeting he went to his cubicle where months' worth of paperwork was piling up but nothing happened. He just sat there, staring ahead, his eyes unseeing.

It had been three months since Rodríguez's burial. After we came back I had put him on desk duty and we – the core team – decided to give him time to deal with his grief on his own but it wasn't working. Instead of getting better he more and more slipped away into depressiveness.

"You and Santos, my office." I said after dialing Tank's extension.

"What's up, boss?" Tank asked after he and Lester came in.

"Bobby." Both their faces darkened. They were worried about their friend. We were all grieving but Bobby was spiraling out of control. "When was the last time he talked to one of you?"

"I went over to his apartment with pizza four days ago but he sent me away." Lester said quietly. "I thought about breaking in but we had said we won't force us on him."

Training my eyes on Tank he said dejected "Eight days ago when I tried to take him with me on an easy surveillance. He refrained."

"This has to stop. I watched him over the morning. He isn't functioning anymore. I don't care that he isn't working but I do care that he has isolated himself from us to a point where I'm worried about severe depressions. Have you noticed how much weight he has lost? My guess is about 30 lbs. I want to call Jack to come over and assess him. Any objections?"

"No, cuz; I'm all for it," said Lester. "Perhaps he can give us some advice how to deal with Bobby. I feel so fucking helpless."

After they left I made my way over to Bobby's cubicle where he still sat staring at the wall in front of him.

"Hey man." I said softly, not wanting to spook him. When he looked up and his eyes focused on me, I planted myself on his desk and looked at him for a minute. "Bobby, this has to stop. I'm worried – Tank and Les are worried. I suspect that you are suffering a major depression. When I get back to my office, I will call Jack and ask him to come over and talk to you. I expect you to be cooperative and accept any help that he is offering to you. I know you are grieving and that is ok; moving on will take time. But you aren't functioning anymore and I can't accept that – not as your boss, but as your friend." Looking into his eyes, searching for any kind of affirmation, all that greeted me was emptiness. Calling Jack was the right thing to do, we probably waited far too long. I laid my hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. "We are your friends; we are all here for you, man." And with that I left to make the phone call.

End of flashback

Jack, an Army veteran and our in-house psychologist, came over the same day, put Bobby on some mild anti-depressants and arranged regular therapy sessions.

When Bobby got a call four months later that Rodríguez was alive and brought to Ramstein AFB in Germany, we couldn't believe it. We all – the core team plus Woody, Cal and Ram – immediately flew over there to see it for ourselves, to bring our friend home. Little did we know what was awaiting us. When Bobby came back from the ICU, his brown skin looked ashen and his eyes were red and swollen. That should have told me that it was bad but my mind didn't want to listen. When he listed Rodríguez's injuries and all the surgeries and skin graftings he would have to endure over the next year and a half, all I could think about was that his life as he knew it was over, that he would never be the same again. But when he told us about the rapes and resulting anal damage – I'm no touchy person but at that moment I knew what I had to do. I drew Bobby into a hug and held him tight while he cried, trying to convey some of my strength to him. It were times like that that draw us closer together and let us readjust our priorities in life.

Six weeks later Rodríguez was stable enough to be brought back stateside and taken to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. They had stopped the artificial coma a week prior but he was so traumatized, had retreated so far back into his mind, that nothing or nobody seemed to get through to him. When he wasn't asleep, he just laid in his bed, starring unseeingly at the ceiling. The only person he reacted to was Bobby; first just to his touch but in the course of the following months also to his words. Bobby put all his energy in getting his friend out of his mental prison but Rodríguez never spoke, just moved his eyes or blinked as only means of communication. We – Tank, Les, Woody, Cal, Ram and I - visited weekly, tried to show him our support but he never even acknowledged our presence.

Six months later, after the main surgeries were done and his body was healing far better than anybody had ever expected, the doctors advised us to transfer him to a mental institution.

Flashback

"Mr. Manoso, Bobby," Dr. Krawell nodded to us as we entered his office. "Thank you for coming on such a short notice." He leaned back in his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You know I like to get straight to the point so I won't make much unnecessary words. We can't help Captain Rodríguez any more than we have and truth be told I doubt anybody can help him where he is."

"What do you mean?" Bobby stiffened.

"I mean that he is totally unresponsive to any of our efforts to help his mind deal with its trauma."

"That's not true. He's responding to me – and more so than in the beginning." Bobby said defensively.

I laid my hand on his shoulder to calm him down. "What does that mean, Dr. Krawell?" I tried to sound neutral but I felt the anger hot in my veins.

"It means, Mr. Manoso, that there are a lot of soldiers coming back from combat zones or captivity that are traumatized and need our help but our resources are limited. As sad as it is, but if a patient is as unresponsive as Cpt. Rodríguez, he has to make room for someone we can help more."

"You're kicking him out?" Bobby shot out of his seat, his voice loud and angry. "Thank you very much for serving your country but since you are too damaged…" Before he could say or do anything stupid I had him in a vice grip, constricting his breathing to get his attention.

"Calm down, man. You don't help Rod by attacking his doctor." I said lowly into his ear.

"Listen Bobby," Dr. Krawell spoke up again, his voice calm and compassionate. "I know you are angry with me and feel helpless and broken-hearted but sometimes a trauma is so severe that it can push somebody so far back into his mind that we can't reach him anymore. Captain Rodríguez's case is the hardest I've ever had to deal with; none of us has an idea what he's been through. You know that several psychologists specialized in PTSD have tried to work with him over the months but he not once responded to their efforts. At some point we have to stop and accept what we can't change. We already kept him longer than anybody else."

"What do you recommend, Doctor?" I know my face was blank, my voice calm and unattached but inside all I wanted to do was scream. That was it? A handshake, some consoling words, and we had to accept that our friend – though alive – would never come back to us?

"There are VA Medical Centers out there that specialize in the care of veterans with PTSD, MST(*) or as the case may be SMI(**). You come from Trenton, New Jersey right? The East Orange Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System enjoys a very good reputation for their treatment of PTSD plus there is a Military Sexual Trauma Counselor at the Newark Vet Center. Captain Rodríguez would get the 24/7 care he needs and you could visit him there. My secretary can give you the addresses."

No – there had to be other possibilities. "Thank you Doctor. I'd like to check them out. Is it possible that Cpt. Rodríguez could stay until we found the right place for him?"

"Two weeks max, Mr. Manoso."

"Sir." And with that I dragged a frozen Bobby out of the doctor's office, down the hall and into the luckily empty small waiting room for relatives. "Attention!" I commanded in a harsh voice. Bobby immediately snapped out of his funk. "Listen, Brown. Just because the doctors give up on Rodríguez doesn't mean that we give up, too. I call Tank – he'll get Les, Woody, Cal and Ram moving. They will research every possibility we have and then we will pick the best. We won't give up until every stone is turned, every possibility tried. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." Bobby answered, still in a daze.

"Good. Now go back to him; he needs you at his side. I think Ella smuggled some sugary contraband in that care package I brought; Ram told her what a sucker for sweets Rod is."

I watched Bobby moving down the hall to the elevators. As soon as he vanished in one of them my fist connected with the wall next to me, giving way for my frustration.

End of Flashback

We started our search for a VA Vet Center that hopefully could help him but any place we visited felt wrong to us. They were all doing great work, no question, but we wanted a place that wouldn't accept the status quo but put all their effort in getting Rodríguez well again. Ram finally found the perfect institute. It was a private mental institution named Cedar Creek, beautifully situated between the soft hills of Kentucky. They specialized in victims of domestic abuse and rape who didn't respond to conventional therapy but had no experience with traumatized soldiers. Cal on the other hand had continuously kept in touch with Jack. When we told Jack about Cedar Creek he immediately thought it was a good idea. The institution was famous for their individual approach and success. It didn't take much to convince him to move to Kentucky for an indefinite time and work with Rodríguez and the institute's specialists – all costs paid by Rangeman of course. Thus a few days later Rodríguez was transferred to Cedar Creek and brought into a beautiful spacious room with cheerful colors, plants and flowers that would be his home for an open-ended future. The nurses assigned to him were all amiable, gentle and caring. Though he didn't acknowledge them, they introduced themselves each time their shifts began, told him about their day so far and treated him as a self-dependent adult. At the end of the third day we got an email from Bobby that everything was fine and he thought we'd made the right decision by bringing Rodríguez there.

From the day we arrived at Ramstein and he saw him in the ICU for the first time, Bobby had stayed at Rodríguez's side. He had taken a leave of absence the day he got that call all those months ago and now also moved to Kentucky to be close to his partner. A small security company offered him to work half days so he could spend the other half of the day either with Rodríguez or relaxing from the immense emotional stress he was under. I doubt they were aware about what a catch Bobby was. He and Rodríguez had been a couple for a bit more than two years when he was declared dead. At the beginning every one of us was shocked since none of them had ever shown any homosexual tendencies but soon we saw how good they were for each other and we were happy for them. They didn't advertise their relationship but they also didn't hide it and those who were observant could easily see their shared stolen moments. Rodríguez had founded Rangeman with us which made him a partner together with Tank, Lester and Bobby. He still had his contract with the Navy and was in the wind a lot but whenever he was at home Bobby and he were all smiles and inseparable. I couldn't even start to imagine what all this would mean for their relationship. How do you deal with it when your partner, the person you love and planed a future with, was tortured and raped and is so traumatized and withdrawn that he no longer takes an active part in his life? No longer talks to you? Irrespective of the fact that you thought he was dead, buried him, then have to learn that he's alive, just to realize that while his body is back with you, his mind is captivated in the past.

A month after his transfer to Cedar Creek Rodríguez blurted out his first word. The nurse had brought him his dinner and she and Bobby kept him company when he took his first bite, spitted it out and sounded a loud and clear 'Yuck!'. I doubt there'd ever been two people so happy by that exclamation. It started with just a few single words but he actively reacted to his surroundings and each small progress was celebrated as victory. In the beginning the only persons he interacted with were Bobby and his in-house therapist but soon he accepted Jack's efforts, too. The interaction with the other patients however was difficult for him; he preferred to be alone. After three months Tank, Lester, Woody, Cal, Ram and I got an invitation to visit him. It was a handmade picture-card with a photography of the scenery surrounding the institute encircled by an intricate hand drawn tribal pattern. As we learned later Rodríguez had made it himself as part of his therapy. Of course we jumped at the chance and gladly went but seeing him there, showing us his accomplishments in the workshop, was a hard pill to swallow. He once was the most lethal and sufficient operator the government had ever had and now ... he was a shadow of that man, proudly showing us his wood and pottery work, telling us about him and Bobby going for trail rides and visiting museums. When we drove home that night, the mood in the two SUVs was depressed. Jack had intercepted us before we left and explained a bit of what was going on with Rodríguez and how we could rate the day's events but nevertheless it was hard not to think of him as disturbed. Looking back, I had to admit that we came to Cedar Creek anticipating to finally see our friend again but the man in front of us wasn't the man we said goodbye to a year ago before he left for his mission. It wouldn't change a thing about our friendship or that we would take care of him once he hopefully was recovered enough to leave Cedar Creek but we all had to adjust to the fact that the Rodríguez we knew would probably never come back.

All that time his Muerte persona – the devil incarnate that made him to the unique operator he was - had never again made an appearance. Rodríguez's memory about his military past was fragmentary at best; he remembered his Basic and SEAL training but after that it became fuzzy. From the moment he entered DEVGRU and became La Muerte everything was black; no memories, total detachment. In the presence of Jack and his in-house therapist Bobby told him about his other persona and soon he started to hate that Muerte and all the death and destruction he had brought. Never did he want to go back to being that person ever again. I know that for some time the psychologists feared a split personality but since there were no other signs for Muerte but what Bobby told them they soon dismissed that fear. Six months after his transfer to Cedar Creek he moved out of his room in the institute's building into one of the supervised residential groups that were scattered over the compound. At first he had a relapse and withdraw from everybody but he recovered quickly and after four more months he moved into an own apartment outside the institute's compound near Bobby's place.

The day they came home was one sole party for us – it was one year and nine months after Bobby got the call that Rodríguez was alive. For one day we forgot about work and celebrated the return of our friend and brother in arms but things didn't go from there as we had hoped. Many things had changed. Five months after Rodríguez's death the core team together with Cal, Ram and Woody had started the Trenton branch to get some distance to Miami and all its memories and give Bobby the chance for a new start. Since the therapists thought that it would be best when Rodríguez would be surrounded by his friends, he and Bobby didn't go back to Miami but came to Trenton instead. There were a lot of foreign men he didn't know and though he never showed it I'm sure they intimidated him.

The downward spiral started when he and Bobby had to search for an own apartment outside the Rangeman building because he couldn't stand being continuously surrounded by all the men. Five months later he announced to the core team that he wanted to sell his partnership. He didn't want that responsibility anymore but instead asked to have a simple desk job as an employee.

Flashback

The five of us were sitting in my office. I had my fingers steepled in front of my chin and was watching Rodríguez. What was going on with him? He'd been doing fine the last time we visited him at Cedar Creek but since he came back he had more and more retreated. He was moody and had a quick temper; it was so not him – neither Rodríguez, nor Muerte. Maybe that was the problem. As much as they tried to prepare him at Cedar Creek to stand on his own feet again, it was still in a safe environment. Now he was out in the real world, in his old life, and had to proof himself. What if he couldn't deal with that, if it was too much stress for him?

"Man, you can't mean that!" Lester's irritated voice brought me out of my mental ramblings.

Rodríguez leveled a glare at him. "I can and I do and I don't give shit whether you like it or not."

"Fuck you! You don't have to tell me that you don't give fucking shit about how I feel. I know that." Lester bit back. "Perhaps you should think a bit before you drive off the last remaining friends you have, you fucker."

"SANTOS!" Tank barked.

"WHAT? It's true and you know it. He doesn't give shit about me? Well, then it is my good right to not give any shit about him. Let him sell his fucking partnership, I don't care, we are better off without him." With that Lester stalked out of the room. He didn't mean what he said but the changes in his friend scared him and he didn't know how to handle them.

"Rodríguez, that is a big decision." I said calmly. "This partnership will always provide for you so you won't need to worry about your finances. If you sell it, that emergency parachute is gone. Do you really want that? If you don't want to be involved in the day to day business we can find another solution – a silent partnership for example. Think about it."

"There's no need to think about it; the decision is made. I expect you to have the paperwork ready in a month so there's no need to hurry – and I would be thankful if you would offer me some kind of desk work so I have a monthly income; something simple like doing searches, planning take downs or so."

With that Rodríguez stood up and left the room, leaving Tank, Bobby and me behind.

End of flashback

After he'd been at his new job for a few months he asked to only work at night so he wouldn't have to interact with any of the other men. When Bobby and he announced their breakup one and a half years after they'd come back and six years and five months after they first fell in love with each other we were all sad for them. I especially felt miserable. They were both my friends and I knew they loved each other deeply but obviously the damage done to Rodríguez was too much for him to overcome. Bobby moved back into the Haywood building while Rodríguez kept the apartment and isolated himself even more from everybody.

Now within the course of 24 hours he - or better his Muerte persona - attacked Bobby, the only person who still meant something to him. Then he tried to commit suicide, just to turn 180 degree, no longer wanting to die but instead build a new life with all our help. I felt like I had a whiplash. I had met soldiers suffering depression throughout my life and I knew how deep they could fall after a manic phase – we all had to be observant in case the suicidal thoughts returned. Standing under the shower I let the warm water take care of the tension in my shoulders while my thoughts kept returning to the woman of the Inferna Angelus. She was present at all those three incidents; kept Muerte from killing Bobby, kept Rodríguez from killing himself and made him realize that his life is worth living and he needs his friends. I didn't believe in magic but something about this woman was outside the norm. How could she have such an influence on Rodríguez and get him out of his funk? Even more important how could she have such an influence on Muerte that he willingly obeyed her wishes? The day I heard the first story about La Muerte, he became my standard to meet; his abilities, his quiet manner, his severe discipline, his far-sightedness, his way to command, simply everything about him intrigued me. I wanted to become as good as him but never fully achieved that goal. Muerte was unstoppable, unswayable, or so I thought until today, until a tiny scarred woman proofed me wrong. Wrapping a towel around my hips I made my way to the kitchen to grab a bottle of water. Though she didn't give any such thing away, I'm sure she knows more about what's going on with Rodríguez than she's letting on. The question is why's she holding back? Why did she become all protective when I wanted to question him? Making my way back to the bedroom my thoughts kept jumping back to earlier this evening at Bobby's apartment. Something was nagging at my subconscious mind. I couldn't put my finger on it but something must have happened that my subconsciousness registered and can't pigeon-hole. Hopefully it will come to me 'cause otherwise I'll need to have a one-on-one with Miss Terror about what the fuck is going on. I didn't believe Rodríguez when he said something about the upcoming mission was wrong. If it turns out he was right and Muerte's resurrection was caused deliberately to affect this mission – I don't even want to think about it. If that is the case everything will go to hell in a handbasket. Fast.

* MST = Military Sexual Trauma

** SMI = Serious Mental Illness


A/N: Whooohoooooo ... I just did it. I uploaded my first story/chapter EVER :-)

If you want me to stop doing a happy dance and upload the next chapter, just tell me.